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

RfS has come a long way from those humble beginnings. It now has 19 full- and part-time employees. The program has helped schools install permanent kitchens, and Gracie has trained teachers to conduct the classes so she doesn't have to lead them all herself. In 2008 she won a President's Volunteer Service Award from George W. Bush, and last year met with White House chef Sam Cass to help spearhead Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign. "You'll still find me in a school at least once a week," she says, "but this way I have time to raise funds and keep the program growing."

Gracie is quick to point out that Recipe for Success wouldn't have been possible without her family's support. Her husband, Bob, 57, president and CEO of the oil and gas company Milagro Exploration, serves on the charity's board of directors. Gracie's 36-year-old son, Justin, who works with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in Washington, D.C., designed the group's website; and Bobby, 31, an investment banker in Houston, helps with fundraising. Daughter Gina, 26, has been a tireless RfS volunteer in the classroom. She's also the mother of Gracie's first grandchild, 2-year-old Joseph, and she's gotten him off to a healthy start nutrition-wise. "She makes baby food herself, just like I did," Gracie says. "And his first solid food was whatever the family was having for dinner—only thrown into the blender. Now he loves hummus, broccoli, green beans, carrots, even jambalaya, not to mention every kind of fruit. He gobbles blueberries and strawberries like candy! He's eating right at an early age, which is what I want for all children."

She's already making measurable headway on that front. Researchers at the University of Texas School of Public Health, who assessed students in the RfS program, found that they have significantly increased the number of servings of fruits and vegetables they consume each day. In the meantime, Gracie has ambitious plans to expand the group's reach. Seventy-five local schools are now on the waiting list to join RfS, and a project is under way to duplicate the program in Alaska, Colorado, Maryland, and New York. She's also developing Newtrition, a healthy vending machine company whose proceeds would be used to support RfS. "But my biggest dream for the future is New Hope Farms," she says. "We're working with the mayor's office to turn abandoned property into organic plots. I also want to encourage area farmers to donate fresh food to schools—especially those with youngsters who qualify for free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch."

As rewarding as her accomplishments are, nothing gives Gracie more joy than her one-on-one contact with the kids. "They hug me when I arrive," she says. "I look at them as my surrogate children, and it's wonderful to see them learning cooking skills and healthy eating habits. They're also gaining self-confidence and an appreciation of the value of teamwork—lessons that will benefit them for the rest of their lives. For me, that's what puts the 'success' in Recipe for Success."

Originally published in the February 2010 issue of Family Circle magazine.