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Food Heroes: Gracie Cavnar and Recipe for Success

In ­2005, Gracie Cavnar and 24 volunteer chefs in Houston, TX entered fourth-grade classrooms with a mission—to teach children how to cook. One classroom at a time, Cavnar launched the Recipe for Success organization in hopes of “changing the way our children eat.”

The following year, Recipe for Success built gardens as part of an curriculum that integrated the produce the kids grew in the garden with the food on their plates. To get kids (or anyone really) to love the food they eat, they need to understand it. From teamwork to math and science, they introduced table etiquette and even the idea of sitting at the table together. “It’s not just about the food we eat but also the way we eat it,” Cavnar says. It’s a change in perspective.

Cavnar's father was a farmer, and her mother made baby food from scratch; she was eating raw oysters by age 3 and ran a neighborhood catering business by the time she was 12. Experiencing the raw bliss of consuming food just harvested from its source during childhood set Cavnar up for a "lifelong love affair with food," she says.

Spurred by the obesity epidemic in the mid-90s, she worked to remove vending machines from elementary schools in Texas. Her focus then turned to uncovering the causes, best practices, and unintended results of poor eating and lifestyle changes associated with obesity.

In her research, Cavnar discovered hundreds of contributing causes. The most critical? The food we eat and the way we eat it. Thus, a happy discovery: "Children who cooked made better eating decisions,” she says. “Children who gardened were healthier eaters."

That's when her love of cooking and gardening merged. As a self-proclaimed "chef groupie," she thought to herself, "no one is better at turning on the light about food and food preparation than a chef."

“They [chefs] can get you really excited about taste buds and how they work together. Get to the soul of what cooking is, not just following a recipe, but how flavors work together, how sight and smell make such a difference,” Cavnar says.

Driven by a chef-inspired Seed-to-Plate Nutrition Education program, Recipe for Success has become the only organization in the country of its scope. In the first six years, around 16,000 children participated. In nine years, they developed over 400 lesson plans for pre-K to eighth grade students— the largest and most comprehensive nutrition information programs for kids in the U.S.

Now, RFS can be experienced in a bite-sized way through a program called Farmers Markids. “A lot of schools around the country have gardens, but they don't necessarily know what to do next. What do you do with the produce that is grown?” Cavnar says. Farmers Markids empowers kids to be productive with the produce they grow and integrate community members by giving them ways to get involved.

The comprehensive five-lesson plan program gives parents/educators constructive ways to get kids involved with food and business (i.e. healthy fundraising opportunities for schools). “The kids learn about food, marketing and transform all of that into their very own business,” she says.

We applaud you Gracie and Recipe for Success!