At the moment time was called, I was helping Drew plate his elaborate “fruit pizzas,” while Javaughn carefully garnished his smoothies, and the wheaty warmth of Alicia’s muffins sang through the kitchen as she pulled them from the oven. Courtney Hart, the cooking teacher at Ansonia High School, surveyed her bustling classroom— in addition to the five sixth grade competitors cooking and plating furiously, five adult volunteers (two food service staff members, one community farm executive director, one public health researcher, and one FoodCorps service member— that’s me!) puttered around the kitchen, helping to whatever extent their charge required.
This was the second annual VITAHLS (Valley Initiative to Advance Health and Learning in the Schools) Healthy Cooking Challenge, a live cooking competition for sixth graders throughout the district. As the competition planner, I was able to build on the work of the previous FoodCorps service member and collaborate with a range of different people and organizations interested in food, health, and nutrition in the region. Celebrating food in this way is a great companion to the work I do regularly with these students— teaching about food and nutrition to supplement the meager 3.4 hours of nutrition education that American elementary school students receive on average each year. Events like this cooking competition give our students a reason to be invested in the facts they learn in class and to engage on a personal level, building positive relationships with healthy food in a way that’s fun and exciting. I had planned for weeks and as the competition began, I was excited but a little nervous.
My excitement needn’t have been tentative. The scene had been set: as they shuffled in, each sixth grader found their personal cooking station and donned their new chef’s coat, hat, and nametag; our judges were distinguished leaders from the Ansonia elementary schools whose heartfelt and thoughtful feedback added gravity and significance to the day; our audience was invested. And there were prizes. In planning the competition, my challenge had been getting everyone— teachers, parents, students, food service staff, public health researchers, school administrators, and farm staff— into the same room. Once there together, the deal was sealed.
Nerves were high as the students presented their dishes to the panel of judges. They described their healthy snacks—whole wheat muffins, “mini fruit pizzas,” spinach dip, a smoothie, and a “fruit ice-cream cone”— and the ingredients they had chosen; the judges offered emphatic praise, perceptive feedback, and asked thoughtful follow-up questions. One judge suggested that he might need Alicia’s muffin recipe for the office and praised her use of dates as a subtle sweetener. All three dug into George’s fruit “ice cream cone” (no ice cream involved)— a creative and detailed fruit and cheese display arranged like an ice cream cone, and the eventual winner of the contest. The audience was grateful to try a taste of Andrew’s spinach dip, artfully displayed in a hollowed out loaf of bread.
Ultimately, the event was a success because the students had fun while developing and preparing their healthy recipes, but it’s not just about the kids. The food service staff got excited too— before leaving for the day, they offered their help in any similar initiatives moving forward. The administrators were excited, and likewise offered their support in the future. The parents were able to see their kids recognized for their successes and having fun with healthy food. Bringing people together around food helps build the relationships and personal investment that all of our communities will need to develop long-term solutions to the health challenges facing our country.
Each of our students put so much care and thought into their dishes, I worried that some might be let down that they didn’t win. I was relieved when, the day following the competition, I ran into an upbeat Javaughn while teaching a science class at his school. I gave him a high five and he thanked me and said he had a great time at the competition— he was still wearing his new chef’s coat and hat from the night before.