By Kristin Hackler
“Kids, teachers, parents and staff: you are officially being challenged to put on your chef hat and help create a healthier future for your community!”
In early January, this challenge went out to all 80 schools in the Charleston County School District (CCSD) that are enrolled in the USDA National School Lunch Program. Created and sponsored by MUSC’s Boeing Center for the Promotion of Healthy Lifestyles in Children and Families, along with Food Lion and in partnership with CCSD, the School Lunch Recipe Challenge was designed to “bring together the creative cooking minds of food service staff, students, teachers, and community members to develop exciting, tasty, kid-approved, and most importantly, nutritious recipes that can be integrated into school lunch menus.”
The challenge received enthusiastic response and more than 60 area schools picked up their serving spoons and started stirring together some truly creative and delicious recipes. The first challenge, however, was getting past the USDA school lunch criteria: each entrée needed to be easily replicable in a school cooking environment and had to be cost effective, as well as meet the guidelines for the total amount of meat or meat alterative required at lunch for their age group. Additionally, the recipe creation team needed to be comprised of at least one student, one member of the cafeteria staff, and one community member. One by one, the prequalifying judges worked their way through the recipe entries and on March 12 announced the top ten semi-finalists; and Mount Zion Elementary was one of them.
For the week of April 2 through 6, a team of volunteers from the Charleston County School District and the sponsoring MUSC program dropped by all 10 schools to sample the semi-finalists’ recipes, and during each visit, the entire school was welcome to participate in the judging as the meal was prepared as part of school lunch for the day. After finished the meal, students were asked to take an index card – blue for boys and either pink or yellow for girls – and drop it in a bucket featuring either a smiley face or a frowning face.
“I give it two thumbs up!” said third grade student Kyra Freeman after trying a bite of Mount Zion’s entry called Melting Pot Stew. “It goes great on graham crackers and with sour cream. I think it’s awesome, he did a really good job.”
Kyra was especially excited about the meal as the creative student mind behind the Mount Zion recipe is her classmate, Tracy Frasier.
“I like to cook at home, so when Ms. Debbie [cafeteria manager Debbie Czerniak] asked if I wanted to help, I said yes,” said Tracy. Together, he and Czerniak worked out the recipe and, with a little help from his teacher, came up with the name.
“It’s because of all the vegetables in it,” Tracy pointed out.
The recipe was taste tested with teachers and once they got the thumbs up from everyone, Tracy and Czerniak sent their final entry in for judging.
“It’s good, I like the rice the most,” said third grade student Ruby Zilli.
“It’s the best!” said Robert Snelson, another third grade student sitting across from Ruby.
Comprised of chicken and brown rice with a variety of vegetables including pinto and lima beans, green peppers, tomatoes, carrots, corn and cubed sweet potatoes, the Melting Pot is seasoned with cumin, white pepper and garlic, and topped with freshly chopped cilantro.
The recipe means even more to the students of Mount Zion as they recognize a lot of the vegetables in the dish from their own school garden.
“We were one of the original schools to participate in the Children’s Garden Project and we’ve been a part of it for about five or six years,” said third grade teacher Elizabeth Stentz. “We now have kids who volunteer to skip recess because they want to work in the garden.”
Students, teachers, and judges were all pleased with the Melting Pot Stew meal and a lot of bowls left the tables empty. And while there are still some students who turn their nose up at a fresh tomatoes and diced onions, far more appreciated the delicious combination of healthy and nutritious produce.
Winners for the School Lunch Recipe Challenge will be announced at the end of April. The top two winners (one elementary school and one secondary school) will be recognized at a special ceremony, and each school will receive $500 to be used for wellness efforts at their school. Additionally, the winning entrées will be incorporated into the CCSD school lunch menu, and both foodservice employees and students will receive a plaque for their school’s kitchen and a distinctive chef coat.