(Photo Credit: Thinkstock)

(Photo Credit: Thinkstock)

This article is presented in partnership with CA Lottery.

For many of us, the kitchen is the heart of the home, a place of refuge filled with warmth, family and healthy food. For many others, including children, the kitchen is little more than a rarely used way station with a refrigerator half-empty except for yesterday’s take-out containers and a bottle of Coke. Today, in the United States, 17 percent of school-aged children currently have a body mass index (BMI) registering in the obesity range. Studies clearly indicate that children living in underserved communities, where supermarkets are few and far between, experience issues with weight at a higher rate than their peers who live in more affluent areas.

Current data from the U.S. Census Bureau lists Los Angeles as having one of the highest poverty rates in the nation. Nutrition is one of the many victims of poverty, affecting not only children’s health but also, their ability to learn and excel in school. On the front lines of reversing this trend is Common Threads, a hands-on cooking program and nutritional education initiative, targeting kids that attend public schools in communities where over 92 percent of students get free or reduced-price lunch. The program is expanding nationally, but currently operates most extensively in the areas of Los Angeles and East Palo Alto hit hardest by poverty.

Reducing Risk By Increasing Knowledge

“The catalyst for the program is the fact that our kids are at risk. In particular, California has one of the greatest food insecurity challenges in our nation, with obesity rates tripling in children and the family meal declining,” says Common Threads Chief Executive Officer Linda Novick O’Keefe.

Data indicates that families who eat together have kids less likely to smoke, do drugs and experience obesity. Common Threads empowers families to eat healthy food together at home, by supplying kids with a tool kit and allowing them to lead the way, armed with nutritional know-how and hands-on kitchen skills. They do this by providing a culturally relevant, skill-based curriculum, geared toward Common Core Standards which supports increased acuity in science and math as well as good nutrition and healthy eating habits.

An Oasis In The Food Desert

Underserved neighborhoods are food deserts, earmarked by a preponderance of corner candy stores, fast food restaurants and liquor stores selling snacks, but few to no supermarkets or green grocers within walking distance.

“If we’re raised going to the nearest liquor store and picking up a bag of chips and orange pop, and we do that day after day after day then eventually, that becomes breakfast,” says O’Keefe, who sees the most powerful results from her program in the youngest children. “The sooner we can get to them the better. The program turns kids into lightning rods in their families, advocating for real change. When we teach them how and what to cook they go back to their families and rally for healthier meals that their family will eat together.”

The data backs up the claim. A full 38 percent of families with a child participating in the Common Threads program report increasing the frequency of preparing meals at home, rather than relying on fast food options. And 81 percent of students in the program share information about healthy cooking and nutrition with their families.

Parents are encouraged to join their kids in Common Threads’ classroom kitchens, where culturally diverse meals are prepared using wholesome, yet affordable ingredients. Kids who formerly didn’t know that meat comes from cows, or the difference between a spinach leaf and a Brussel sprout, are acquiring a love of fruits and veggies as well as the skills needed to turn them into delicious, affordable meals. Kids in the program eat better consistently, a powerful behavior shown to lead to other, healthy habits, including longer hours spent sleeping and better study habits.

Corey Whelan is a freelance writer in New York. Her work can be found at Examiner.com.