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Recipe for Success: Fighting Childhood Obesity with Cooking Skills and Healthy Eating Habits

Gracie Cavnar
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Jack Thompson

Gracie has always had a passion for eating well. "I grew up cooking and gardening, and learned early on the extraordinary difference in flavor between processed food and fresh seasonal produce," she says. After earning a degree in architecture at the University of Texas, she took a brief detour to study at the famed Cordon Bleu in Paris before becoming a public relations executive. In the 1990s, after learning that nearly 50 percent of fourth-graders in the Houston area were overweight, Gracie waged a successful campaign to banish vending machines from Texas elementary schools. Then she came up with the idea of starting healthy cooking classes that would also teach kids English, math, and a little science. "I envisioned a program where students would write essays on their favorite foods, and where they'd learn everything from measurements and fractions to the definition of emulsion," she says.

After setting up her nonprofit in 2005, Gracie spent the next year researching school nutrition programs across the country, as well as meeting with city and county commissioners. She also devoted herself to fundraising. "I contacted everyone I knew who might be able to help, including Bill White, who was then mayor of Houston," she says. "His wife held a kickoff gala for us, which meant I had to do what I said I was going to do!" In short order, Gracie organized dinners that helped bring in private donations and corporate sponsors. On top of that, she convinced 47 of the city's best chefs to help her teach in the classroom.

The following year Gracie and a small group of friends spent the summer assembling portable cooking stations in her living room. "I ordered prefabricated cooking carts with stainless steel tops, and we added casters on the bottom, power strips, and shelves to hold convection ovens and electric burners," she says. "Then we outfitted each one with pots, pans, measuring spoons, bowls, and cutting mats." Recipe for Success made its debut that September, literally rolling into five local schools for a monthly cooking session with fourth-graders. "Back then we'd set up the carts in the hallway, then go into the classrooms and cover the desks with oilcloth," Gracie recalls. "For cleaning up, we boiled water in electric kettles and poured it into big plastic tubs."