Gracie Gets Things Done
Gracie Cavnar has never been short of the gumption that it takes to tackle large projects, and that is exactly what she did ten years ago in establishing her foundation to educate children about healthy food choices. She had just retired, and it would have been much easier to slip into the role of a Houston socialite. But Gracie's alarm over the growing obesity rate for our country’s children made her decide to do something about it. The Recipe for Success Foundation, where she is president and CEO, has since gone on to meet with success and national recognition. The foundation has educated over 30,000 children in Texas through school programs and is now expanding across the country. Recently, Gracie sat down with CKW Luxe magazine for a thought-provoking interview on her work and the power of one person to make a difference in the world.
CKW: Why did you decide to start the foundation?
GC: I created Recipe for Success as a separate foundation in 2005. I was motivated by discovering the alarming rate of childhood obesity in Texas and actually, in the whole country. We had particularly high rates in Texas, especially in Houston. I had been studying the problem for nearly ten years. I originally got involved in taking vending machines out of Texas elementary schools. It
was a project I was involved with in the mid-nineties. It was during that process that I discovered this breathtaking obesity epidemic. Then I started looking at what was happening around the world, not only in regards to the epidemic itself, but also in how it was manifesting itself. I read what the researchers were saying regarding it and about the best practices to reverse the trend. It was after about ten years of examining the problem, looking at best practices, and seeing what was going on around the world that I discovered a lot of research had been already done, but nobody was talking about it. There were quite a few interventions that were highly effective, but there was no money for implementation past the research. I discovered two things that spoke to me in terms of if I were going to give up my life to help with this problem—because that is what I did. One was that researchers said weight patterns and food attitudes were set for life by age eleven. Any interventions to be eeective in changing the way that children approached their food were really most effective if implemented before age eleven. Secondly, despite the plethora of reasons one could cite for the cause of the obesity epidemic, the predominant one is the kind of food we eat, and number two is the way we eat it. Not only has the food that we eat changed dramatically since World War II, but the way we eat our food has changed. We have gone from eating a sit-down family meal, three times a day, to eating convenience food on the run, with all the snacking versus the three formal meals. The way we eat and the kind of food we eat were getting further and further away from full food into more and more highly processed food to the point where we have lost touch with what we are actually eating. We were no longer mindful eaters. A couple of things have piqued my interest in the research: First, I found data showing that children who knew how to cook made better eating decisions, and the second piece of data says that children who understood gardening were better eaters. I thought why don’t we combine the two because really the whole genesis of food—understanding where food comes from—is honoring honest food and is empowering children to create healthy meals. If we caught these children before the age of eleven, we could materially change the attitudes and perspective of the next generation of food consumers. That is something that I can spend my life doing, connecting kids to the magic of food by introducing them to their food from the very seed all the way to the plate. This would empower them with the life skills to take healthy food sources and make them as scrumptious and yummy as the junk food we are trying to leave behind. I also knew that with 52 billion dollars a year being marketed to our children in junk food, we had to be smart about the way we did this. We can’t be earnest and pleading, we can’t lecture, and we can’t have people feel bad about themselves. We literally have to fight marketing. We have to make healthy food every bit as much fun as the junk. So, that is what I decided to do with my time, treasures, and all my resources. I am training the next generation of food consumers.
CKW: What do you enjoy the most?
GC: What I love is to see the delight in a child’s eyes when they discover what we think of as the magic of food, when they realize that they actually love something, and they love to eat it. They are just so proud of their dish, and they want you to taste it. Their excitement, enthusiasm and sense of accomplishment give me great joy.
CKW: How can we teach children to give back to their communities?
GC: We started a program last year called “farmers marKids,” which is celebrated on the 20th through the 26th of October. It consists of a full curriculum that helps a parent or a teacher lead children through the process of understanding how to turn produce from their garden—it can be their home garden, their school garden, or their church garden—into a small business of a market stand.
Along the way, of course, we have embedded lessons about the commercial food system on how food actually gets from farms to the grocery store. Students learn about how food is marketed to them, which is an important lesson, so they can understand the dieerence between promotion and fact. They also use that information to market their own food and to set their own prices, as well as learning financial literacy. All kinds of things are
embedded in the lesson plan, and then the students learn to operate their own farmers marKIDS stand.
One of the last lessons after operating the stand is when they decide what went
well, what didn’t go well, and now what are they going to do with their profit. We find that they very rarely decide to divide the profit among themselves. Usually, will donate the profit back to their garden in some way, by buying something nice for their garden, especially if it is a community garden or a school garden. They may buy their garden a bench or plant a fruit tree. Often you see kids deciding to use their profits to build a garden for other kids who don’t have a garden, or to use their profits for some other philanthropic endeavor which we hardily support. We don’t tell the kids that they have to give their profits away. We, through the process of a lesson plan, show them all the ways they can use their profits, including giving a portion of their profits away and keeping part of it to further their business. We feel like it’s an early lesson in philanthropy.
CKW: How do you raise funding for your programs?
GC: Of course, we have to raise a lot of money to implement the programming for Recipe for Success. Every single thing that we do with our fundraising events, I have made it a mission to ensure that we tie that to our mission. We don’t have events that are divorced from our overarching theme of celebrating and
promoting the concept of healthy eating. Everything we do is tied back to eating and honoring food in some way. In fact, even our fundraisers are an extension of our mission. So, we might have a fashion week, where we have a whole series of fashion fundraisers that are called “Dress for Dinner.” We are instilling the concept of a shared meal with family and friends, and we are celebrating the accomplishments of a celebrity chef who donates time to creating dinner after a fashion show. It’s nice to create an occasion with dinner and to dress up, and that’s where fashion comes in. It’s a fun way to raise money and also to highlight our mission. Another thing that we have been doing, instead of having a gala per se, is to have one big party. We do a deconstructed gala called “We Are Cooking Now! A Gala in Small Bites,” and it is a series of small exclusive dinner parties in people’s homes with celebrity high-profile chefs and gala prices. You are still paying $250 to $1500 a ticket to go to these dinners. But instead of getting lost in a big gala, you are having a special time with a small number of people, numbering from twelve to thirty people. It becomes a unique experience of communing with friends who sit down to a meal together. In the fall, we do a luncheon that we call the Blue Plate Special, a little tongue-in-cheek to the specials you used to see in the cafes back in the fifties. And we celebrate the folks who help us do what we do—including the teacher of the year and a celebrity chef.
We have over a hundred chefs on our chefs’
advisory board who volunteer to help us. They go into the schools to teach students how to cook or help us raise awareness, so we like to honor a chef every year. We like to honor a champion of food who helps us use fresh food, which is aeordable and accessible to all Houstonians. All the fundraising eeorts we undertake are tightly tied to our mission. I feel comfortable saying we will probably never have a golf tournament or many things that are fun that other people love to do, because everything that we do is tied to food in some way, tied to our mission, and that makes it easier to raise money. The other thing that we are very focused on is making sure that 100 percent of the ticket price or almost all of the cost, in most cases, for an event goes directly into our programming, with the exception of our luncheon. That’s because we are very generously supported by in-kind supporters who are very mindful of the cost of producing an event, and we make sure that all of that is underwritten. So, your donations go directly to the foundation.
CKW: What is the best advice you would give to someone interested in philanthropy?
GC: Philanthropy is a hard word to define, isn’t it?
In some circles, philanthropy comes loaded with a lot of baggage to indicate that it means large sums of money. I think all of us have the capacity to give back, to be philanthropists, at a variety of levels during our lives, whether it’s giving ten percent to your church or whether it’s helping your daughter’s Girl Scout troop. But let’s just take the word philanthropy in the general sense in which people consider the word—as major financial gifts to the community. I think it’s important that people get involved in nonprofit organizations that are near and dear to their hearts. People should not use philanthropy as a means to climb the social ladder. Unfortunately, you do see a lot of that. You see a lot of people who are motivated to give not for charitable reasons, but because they want to see and be seen, or have the opportunity to wear an important dress, or have an opportunity to have their photograph in the paper. Those things can be nice and can be fun, but I think it’s important to think those are not the motivating factors. Pick something that is important to you. Is it the arts, the visual arts, or music? Do you love opera? Is cancer research important to you because your grandmother died of breast cancer? Is that something that is motivating you? Do you see inequities in the school your children attend? Find something that speaks to your soul and then give of yourself. Connect to charities to which you are just as happy to give your time as well as your money. Give your money in strategic ways, and make
material dieerences in the eeorts of that organization. That is the definition of true philanthropy—not the social pages. That can be a fun thing, but that shouldn’t be your driving motivation.
CKW: What is your vision for the next five years for Recipe for Success
GC: Recipe for Success Foundation is turning ten this year, and we can consider it in the same way that you consider an entrepreneurial company. It’s an organization that I created from nothing that we have managed to grow to a national scale. We have recently gone through a strategic planning session called Vision 20/20 to create a roadmap for the next five years. I am focused on the organization having a long-term sustainability without needing my continued donation of 100 percent of my time as CEO. In the next couple of years, I will be stepping back from day-to-day operations ensuring that we have a fully capable stae in place. So, that is probably my foremost priority. Like any entrepreneurial company, you have to transition from the founder to the next generation and to the next rendition of organizational support and drive. Making that transition from me being in charge day-to-day to creating a long-term sustainable organization that will continue to thrive with or without me is my goal.
CKW: What keeps you motivated every day?
GC: It has been fun to watch the changes in our world
as we focus on childhood obesity, trying to raise awareness about healthy eating. Our vision is to normalize healthy eating. I’m continually motivated by our positive impact and excited that we are accomplishing the whole list of things I set out to do ten years ago when I created Recipe for Success Foundation. One by one, we are checking oe my list: First with our in-school Seed-To-Plate Nutrition Education™ program; and then with my children's cookbook, Eat It! Food Adventures, which won lots of awards. I’m already working on the next one. And we just were granted the start-up funds for Hope Farms, our urban agricultural project, and we will be breaking ground for it this year. Pretty soon, I will need a new list.
CKW: What is the one food item that you would like to see eliminated from the menu and why?
GC: Actually, what I want to see eliminated is not a specific item, but the term “Kid’s Menu.” It should be removed from our whole consciousness. I don’t understand this idea in our culture that kids can eat junk food and then, as they mature, they get to graduate up to eating real food. We are belittling children by assuming that they can’t eat and won’t eat real food. I fed my own children directly from the table, whatever we were eating. Before they could chew, it was whatever we were eating put in the blender. It was spicy—it was everything. They have grown up to be adventurous eaters who will eat anything. It is just a matter of how food is presented to them. Infantilizing them by relegating them to mac ‘n’ cheese and hot dogs is not my idea of forward motion.