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by Kristy B. Yule, MIRM
Our journey with the Chatham County Chef Challenge began last year and we have chronicled the progress in several blogs. For those of you unfamiliar with the challenge, it was very simple. Take 3 local, posh chefs, give them a constraint on money, calories, sugar and salt and have them go head to head with favorite dishes of the pickiest eaters known to mankind - children! The goal of the challenge was to increase the fruit/vegetables that the Chatham County students consume, increase participation in the lunch program at all the schools in the County and to raise awareness about the nutrition of the food that is served every day.
The brave chefs that accepted this challenge were: Colin Bedford - Fearrington House; Jimmy Reale - Crossroads @ Carolina Inn; Chef Hamm & Chef Taylor of the Natural Chef Culinary Program at Central Carolina Community College. They were each asked to prepare a tasty dish, adding more fresh vegetables and fruits, and compete with the students' favorite meals: Nachos, Pizza and Chicken Nuggets. Along the way the chefs prepared, tested and taught local cafeteria managers how to prepare their meals. We shared their experiences in our blog "Chef Challenge Training Day".
As the day of reckoning approached we were all quite nervous. Most parents understand what happens when you try to serve something new to a kid. The typical reaction is an immediate "I don't like it". The fact that they have yet to taste the dish isn't relevant. They don't like change!
The schedule was as follows:
Monday, April 11th - chicken nuggets versus Chef Gregg Hamm and Chef Kelly Taylor's three cheese creamy pasta and a fruit bowl drizzled with chocolate.
Tuesday, April 12th - nachos versus Chef Colin Bedford's menu of macaroni and cheese with chicken and pepperoni in tomato sauce as well as a chocolate cake with fresh strawberries.
Wednesday, April 13th - pizza versus Chef Jimmy Reale's chicken fajita wrap, honey roasted carrots, green beans with marinated cherry tomatoes as well as a fresh berry parfait.
Tami Schwerin of the Abundance Foundation, a key partner in the chef challenge, shared her experience of the first day of the challenge.
"We were all nervous as the competition was tough: chicken nuggets. They are one of the kid's all time favorite lunches. The first few kids picked the nuggets. Then a few kids picked the 3 cheese pasta lunch. Then we watched as the line to get the pasta lunch wrapped around the cafeteria which had never happened before. Usually, the line goes fast while the kids grab plastic wrapped peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and other fast options. The children chose the pasta dish over their beloved chicken nuggets four to one!
The school had printed up little surveys for the children asking four questions: How does the lunch taste, look, smell and would you want to see this again on the menu. Over 80% gave it all GOOD. A few said it smelled bad (parmesan has a strong smell), looked bad and would not want to see it again. The best part was seeing the kids smile, they came up and thanked us and the Chefs for the lunch. Most were exuberant over the new menu and even cheered as Chef Gregg gave a quick announcement about the lunch.
Each day saw similar results. At the end of the week, the average participation in the lunch increased by over 1000 meals (22% increase) and $1200! Eighty-five percent of children agreed that the chefs' meals were good and results showed students would eat them again. In fact, two days into the challenge the schools sold more of the chef's dishes than the kids' "favorite" dish!
We would like to express our appreciation to the staff of Chatham County Schools. To Superintendent Logan we applaud your vision and implementation of healthful eating into our schools; to Debbie McKenzie, Child Nutrition Director for Chatham County, you did an amazing job of managing the menus, ensuring the ingredients were available and ordered, motivating the staff and handling all the additional prep work for the meals, thank you! To Beth McCullough, Public Information Officer, thank you for arranging the media and facilitating the interviews with students, staff and the chefs. And thank you to The Abundance Foundation's managing Director, Tami Schwerin. You worked countless hours, spoke to media, spread the word and managed the process along the way. And of course we need to say a BIG thank you to Chef Bedford, Chef Reale and Chefs Hamm & Taylor. All of you embraced the spirit of this challenge and really put your reputations and skills on the line. Thank you for your time, your talent and for giving back to your community!