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He Gives Kids Free Cooking Lessons—and Healthy Meals

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Art Smith, 47

Founder, Common Threads

FOOD FAME: Oprah viewers might know Smith—her former personal chef—from his guest appearances whipping up hummingbird cake or pistachio-crusted chicken on her show. But the boisterous cookbook author says his greatest creation is the nonprofit he launched in 2003, which uses food to teach low-income kids the value of healthy eating. “You have to teach children to make good choices,” he says.

COOKING CLASS: Four afternoons a week, at schools and community centers in Chicago, Smith and his crew of volunteer chefs give kids free classes in kitchen basics. Donning aprons and chef’s hats, the youngsters learn how to read recipes, measure ingredients and season to taste, while fixing a healthy (no trans-fat, no processed foods) meal. So far, more than 1,500 kids have participated; last year they made 6,000 meals, from butternut squash lasagne to red beans and rice with turkey sausage. (Beyond cooking and nutrition, Smith’s group offers free lessons in dance, gardening and cultural traditions, as well as a six-week summer camp.)

HEALTHY HABITS: After taking Smith’s class, according to surveys he’s done, kids report eating more fresh vegetables, cutting down on fats and sugar and cooking more meals at home. “It’s great,” says Jane Mentzinger, executive director of Chicago Communities in Schools, a nonprofit. “These kids thought healthy food was yucky. But once they learn to cook, they love it—and take the idea home.” That’s what happened in the Cook household, where 12-year-old twins Tobias and Tatianna gave up drinking flavored punch and now enjoy Tatianna’s home-cooked specialties: pasta made from scratch and grilled chicken. “I learned it’s better to cook at home,” she says. “You can make sure it’s healthy.” Adds mom Georgia: “Now, Tatianna loves to cook and they both know junk food is out. I love it.”

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For more information about Common Threads, go to