For years, cookbook writer Sally Sampson had wanted to write for children. No one was interested.
But by 2010, the time was right. Alarm over rising rates of childhood obesity was reaching new heights, as was awareness of the importance of cooking and eating real foods, not just for children, but for whole families and communities. Sampson seized the moment, launching ChopChop, a cooking magazine for children.
The idea is that children who know how to cook and feed themselves will not have to rely on fast food and processed meals. And that families who cook and eat together have healthier lifestyles overall.
Three years later, she reaches some 2 million families with her award-winning quarterly. (Most of its circulation comes from free distribution by doctors during well-child visits. It also is available by subscription, and in Spanish.)
"We think about kids as beginner cooks," Sampson says, noting that her target audience is 5- to 12-year-olds. "We don't do 'kids food.' We do simple dishes. If you had a 20-year-old who didn't know how to cook, you'd teach them the same thing."
Since its launch, ChopChop — which is based in Watertown, Mass. — has become an industry darling. Renowned physicians stack its board of directors. The magazine relies on sponsorship, not advertisements, and receives its largest chunk of funding from footwear company New Balance, which has given more than $1 million. In May the James Beard Foundation named ChopChop publication of the year.
"This is like a magnet for kids," says Barry Zuckerman, professor of pediatrics at Boston University School of Medicine and a member of Sampson's board of directors. Zuckerman says that 20 years ago he saw maybe two obese children a week in his practice. Today, he sees two to four a day. A founder of Reach Out and Read, a 24-year-old program that promotes literacy by giving books to children during doctor's visits, Zuckerman responded immediately to Sampson's model.
"When we give ChopChop it really amplifies the message in a way that words just don't," he said.
Sampson put 100 of the recipes in a cookbook, ChopChop: The Kids' Guide to Cooking Real Food With Your Family, which will be published in August.
Nothing in Sampson's public background would suggest that she was a nut for children's health. But seven years ago, she read a newspaper article by Harvard pediatrician and medical school professor Donald Berwick that took the nation's medical system to task.
"It was like I was reading for the first time about somebody who cared about what I cared about," Sampson said.
She approached pediatricians with an idea to prescribe cooking during appointments. The enthusiasm was fierce, she says. She received more than 140 requests from pediatricians for the as-yet unborn magazine. She began raising money, collecting enough to print 150,000 copies of her first issue.
After that, Sampson says, requests poured in from after-school programs, YMCAs, Boys and Girls Clubs of America, Indian reservations, food banks, neighborhood health clinics and other organizations. New Balance came on board as the main sponsor and remains the biggest donor.
"We were really excited about being part of a movement to get kids cooking again," says Molly Santry, the company's charitable programs manager. "We had funded hands-on cooking classes, and the magazine was another resource for kids and families to get inspired to cook."