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Tackling Obesity in Houston: Recipe for Success

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By Mariam Afshar
Photos by Madelyn Keith
Houston is a large city that is growing everyday, no, this is not about the traffic, although that is always an issue, this is about the health of our residents. Houston has several areas that are considered food deserts, Sunnyside, Independence Heights, 3rd and 5th wards, are a few. The city of Houston recognizes this problem and is working to get it fixed, in the meantime, there are few options for the people inhabiting these areas to find healthy affordable foods. Groups such as Urban Harvest and even Houston Department of Health and Human Services have community gardens set up around town, offer classes, and help with starting your own community garden. Many of these gardens supply fresh fruits and vegetables for low income communities as well as the opportunity for income. One organization starts at the very beginning with elementary school children and is expanding to every school district in Houston and to schools from coast to coast, Recipe for Success Foundation is not just a band aid for the issue of obesity, it is a long term fix. Being healthy isn’t just having a diet and exercise regimen to reach goal, it is a way of life. Recipe for Success Foundation knows this and they are instilling these practices in the lives of our youth.
With over 23 million obese American children who are on the path to adult obesity, Gracie and Bob Cavnar started Recipe for Success Foundation to combat this epidemic. One cause of obesity, in children and adults, is the food we eat and how we eat it. For many areas, affordable healthy foods are not east to obtain. What is available is fast food and prepackaged processed foods. Recipe for Success Foundation believes there is a loss of connection with food sources and the reluctance to try new fruits and vegetables. In their effort to change the way children and families eat and see food, Gracie and Bob were joined by several of the finest chefs in Houston, some of which are still with them today, to kick start their Seed-to-Plate Nutrition Education™ program. Their first year at MacGregor was a learning experience, they used a portable cooking cart designed to take to various classrooms for the lesson and put the school desks together to create a dinner table. By the second year they had their own classroom with a view of their new garden. The children start their journey where their food starts its journey, in the garden. They are a part of their food’s process from seed to plant to plate, or as they call the class Seed-to-Plate Nutrition Education™. They have found that participating in growth and care of their food, along with other elements of the curriculum, has resulted in children eating 30% more vegetables, taking this knowledge home with them to their families and making better food choices.
As the largest program of their kind, Recipe for Success Foundation was asked by the White House to take their programs to a national scale. In 2024, they made Affiliate Partnerships available to schools across the country and created a training program that certifies the instructors and provides ‘extensive curriculum support, resources, expert advice, tools and monthly lesson plans via the web.’ The curriculum was developed with help from professional chefs, gardeners, nutritionists and teachers. The Foundation’s curriculum is grade specific, hands on and connected to the ‘core curriculum with complementary worksheets in math, science, language arts or social studies.’
boy and girl putting dirt in garden with jenna
I had the pleasure of sitting in on two of their lessons, one was a gardening lesson with Becca and the other was a cooking lesson. The gardening lesson began with a visual aid of leaves and a flower from a bok choy plant that was picked from the garden. The students were asked if they remembered the parts of a plant they had learned in a previous lesson and discussed why the bok choy plant produced a flower, they then went out to the garden, added compost and did a little sprucing up. The garden needed it after icepocolypse.
Chef Randy Evans, the Chef/Owner of Haven, has been with Recipe for Success Foundation from the beginning, almost 8 years, and taught the cooking lesson that day. When the kids walked into the classroom, they knew exactly what to do: hang coats on their chairs around the shared table, put on aprons, wash their hands and stand at their stations, quietly awaiting the lesson. Chef Randy greeted the children and jumped into the lesson. They first named all the ingredients that were at each station, then, step by step, each kid made a spring roll. A delicious spring roll made with fresh vegetables from their garden.
Recipe for Success Foundation’s plan to change Houston doesn’t stop with elementary school children, they also host a challenge in March call VegOut!. Challenging anyone and everyone to try a different vegetable everyday for 30 days, with local restaurants along for the ride, creating delicious dishes for the vegetable of the day.
You can support Recipe for Success Foundation by taking cooking classes at RecipeHouse and attend Chef Surprise Dinners, a monthly event with celebrity chefs, a three course meal and wine. Such a tasty way to give back!