While raising her son, Laura Plaut had two realizations about nutrition. Firstly, despite her own well-rounded education, she had never been challenged to ask questions about food systems. Secondly, she became hyper-aware of how sugary treats are aggressively marketed to children. In the wake of these realizations, Plaut was faced with a conundrum: How can adults teach kids lifelong nourishing habits while still fostering a sense of delight?
In response to this question, Plaut founded Common Threads Farm in 2007. Common Threads Farm is a nonprofit that focuses on a “seed-to-table” approach to gardening, nutrition, and environmental stewardship. Statistics show that 35% of kids in Washington don’t get enough veggies, but the organization helps to connect children to nutritious foods in a joyful and community-oriented manner.
Common Threads has grown to serve more than 9,000 children annually and works with five school districts in Whatcom County. They partner with several like-minded nonprofits across Washington.
The “bread and butter” of Common Threads Farm is school-based gardening programs (offered in the warmer months) and cooking programs (offered in the winter). Common Threads works with many schools within Whatcom County; this includes every elementary and middle school in the Bellingham school district, as well as every elementary school in the Baker school district. In addition, they offer after-school and summer programs in community centers, affordable housing communities, at the WWU Outback Farm, and more.
Offering programs at schools during the school day means that all children have access to this education– not just those from privileged backgrounds. Through her work, Plaut aims to build a “community of best practice” around school-based gardens and food education. With the support of their peers, children learn tangible gardening skills, nutritional information, and recipes that they can take home with them.
Though the pandemic necessitated a pause on some in-school programs, Common Threads has several new projects (or “COVID babies”) in the works. These include the revitalization of the Sterling Paz community garden, which is within walking distance of three affordable housing communities. In addition, Common Threads now helps students at Whatcom Intergenerational High School prepare breakfasts and lunches. Plaut says this is important because, when children are involved in food preparation, they are more likely to eat the finished meal.
“We’ve had friends of the organization who are chefs say, ‘I served my kid kale salad every day, but my kid didn’t start eating the kale salad until he was part of your program,’” Plaut says. “I think there’s really something quite magical about connecting with food in a positive peer environment.”
Plaut notes that food choice is a powerful source of agency for kids. Beyond this, children tend to carry early nutritional choices with them throughout their lives. This means that teaching healthy eating habits in a joyful, community-oriented environment can be a form of preventive medicine.
Above all, Plaut’s goal is to be “deeply curious” about every student’s individual background and perspective. Common Threads aims to strike a balance between providing foods that are challenging and foods that are familiar to students across varying cultures.
The organization is also sensitive to the diverse and complex disparities that affect access to nutritional foods, including class and race. Plaut notes that her goal is to respectfully tilt attention and services towards students who are farthest from access.
“I think experience is one of the most significant access barriers,” she says. “There’s financial barriers– do you have enough money to access food? And there’s geographic barriers– can you get to the food? But if I handed you the most gorgeous and freshly harvested bunch of kale, and you didn’t know what to do with it, or you had not seen it before, then I don’t yet consider that food accessible to you.”
Common Threads is a growing organization, and they are always on the lookout for volunteers and donors. Plaut invites interested readers to visit them on social media at @commonthreadsfarm. After all, it takes a village to grow and share food.
“It’s no mistake that cultures around the world have traditions around breaking bread together,” Plaut says. “Eating together can be such an act of solace and solidarity.” Bellingham, 360.927.1590, commonthreadsfarm.org