Architect Tackles Child Obesity
Gracie Cavnar was appalled when she learned that elementary schoolchildren in Texas had access to vending machine junk food. "I thought that marketing junk food to children when they were outside their parents' control was morally wrong," says Cavnar, 59. "In this process, I discovered the looming epidemic of childhood obesity."
It was 1998, and the first studies on childhood obesity were being published. Cavnar had just retired from careers in architecture, hospitality and marketing to write -- and she'd found a subject. Eventually, she wanted to do more than write about childhood obesity for newspapers and magazines, and in 2005 she founded the Recipe for Success Foundation, a nonprofit nutrition education program for school-age children. Because of Cavnar's success in the Houston area, the Obama administration has asked her to take her program to the national level.
Launching the Program
What started as concern for the children of Houston turned into an idea she couldn't ignore. "When I realized that not only should I do something about this issue, but that I was in a unique position to do something about it that would move the needle, I felt I had to," Cavnar says.
Her "unique position" came from years of working in the hospitality industry, which left her with deep and strong ties to the culinary community, along with the spare time that came with her recent retirement. Cavnar also had a strong business background and was active in the Houston philanthropic community, with plenty of media contacts.
Cavnar structured Recipe for Success to combat childhood obesity by changing the way children eat. Working with her network of culinary and other professionals, Cavnar and her staff developed hands-on programming, Seed-to-Plate Nutrition Education, for every grade level from pre-kindergarten to fifth grade. The program "introduces children to the entire cycle of their food, gives them greater understanding of how it works nutritionally, and empowers them with life skills to prepare healthy meals and snacks for themselves," Cavnar says.
Making a Difference
Within a few years, Recipe for Success was reaching more than 4,000 children each month with its Seed-to-Plate education program, along with other initiatives. One such initiative is Chefs in Schools, which brings chefs into elementary schools to teach children -- and sometimes their parents -- how to cook healthy meals.
Last year, Cavnar served on the First Lady's Let's Move! Task Force, which is dedicated to ending the problem of childhood obesity within a generation. She worked with the Department of Education, Department of Agriculture and White House Chef Sam Kass to "help shape the direction [of the program] and move the conversation from entertaining ideas and conjecture to awareness of proven tactics and known pitfalls," Cavnar says. "Many primary tenets of Recipe for Success were woven into the final Let's Move! recommendations, such as [making] effective nutrition education part of the school day, [implementing] learning gardens in every school, and the need to use federal muscle to improve the quality of school lunches."
As a result of Cavnar's work with the task force, the U.S. Department of Education asked Recipe for Success to establish its program on a national scale, and Cavnar is busy fulfilling that request. "We're building an e-learning website to train instructors, establishing a national network of licensed affiliate partners, and working with more than 200 schools and districts from coast to coast," she says.
To raise awareness for the program, Cavnar's first children's cookbook, Eat It! Food Adventures with Marco Polo, will be released in November. An accompanying TV show, Eat It! Food Adventures, is in the works.
Planning for the Future
When she started Recipe for Success, Cavnar "had the stove full of pots, each one of them holding a great idea that I wanted to implement," she says. "I can only deal with one boiling pot at a time. For the first five years, the boiling pot has been our in-school programming, and I've kept everything else on simmer."
Now that Seed-to-Plate is established as a national program, Cavnar says she's ready to "turn up the heat on other programs." Her second cookbook for kids is in the works, and she's ready to start shooting the TV show, which may become a PBS series. Next year, Recipe for Success is launching a rolling green market that will respond to the need for fresh foods in Houston's food deserts and will unveil NEWtrition vending, a healthy vending project.
"My overarching goal is for every elementary child in America to have access to our nutrition education, for our healthy messaging to be supported with a robust, integrated multimedia messaging platform including publishing and TV, and our affiliate programs to be sustained by income from our healthy vending project," Cavnar says.
For Cavnar, Recipe for Success truly is a philanthropic endeavor -- she serves as the CEO on a pro bono basis. But she'd like to find an executive director to take over day-to-day operations within the next two years so she can focus on envisioning the future. "As long as I'm going to work for free, I want to have as much fun as possible," she says.
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