The REAP Food Group will stage what sounds like a pretty daunting culinary challenge that should be fun to watch at its Food for Thought Festival at the end of September. On Saturday, Sept. 25, three local chefs will join three local school principals as kitchen collaborators, working together to plan and prepare a healthy, nutritious, child-friendly meal that will be judged by the harshest critics around: school age kids themselves.

And that's not all. The intrepid cooks must do it all on a budget, under a deadline and in front of an audience. School cooks would say it's almost as hard as what they face daily in the lunchroom.

"I know they will be hard on us," chef Steve Eriksen says of the young judges. Eriksen is one of the contestants and associate team leader for the kitchen at Madison's Whole Foods grocery store. "What you get out of children's mouths is brutal honesty."

But Eriksen says he has a secret weapon as he prepares for the competition: his 3-year-old daughter, Ella, who is a picky eater. "If we can make something that I think Ella will eat, any kid will like it," he says with a grin. 

Eriksen has also developed a sample two-week school lunch menu that meets U.S. Department of Agriculture nutrition guidelines, and which he believes would be palatable, even interesting, to most kids. It includes dishes like southwest beef salad and chicken apple curry. "I'd love to talk to schools about this kind of menu," he says.

The cooking contest is part of an emphasis on healthy eating for kids at this year's Food for Thought Festival. Chef Ann Cooper, known nationally as "the Renegade Lunch Lady," will be the keynote speaker for the event, which will take place Sept. 25 in the 100 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, just off the Capitol Square. The night before, Sept. 24, Cooper will be the featured speaker on a panel at the Food for Thought Forum, 7-9 p.m. in Room 3650 of the UW-Madison Humanities Building, 455 N. Park St.

Cooper is a passionate advocate for improving children's diets, including what they eat at school, as a way to combat the obesity epidemic and to improve the outlook for their health over the course of their lives. She has taken particular aim at conventional school lunches for their emphasis on processed, packaged food heavy in preservatives, fats and sugars, and which lack fresh produce and whole grains. 

Cooper's business partner, Beth Collins, was in Madison early last year to do a preliminary report on Madison's public school lunch program and what would be necessary to include more fresh food in the meals served at local schools. The report can be found here

As Cooper says, the stakes are high for improving our children's diets. The Centers for Disease Control predict that one in three children born in America today will develop diabetes during their lives. Medical experts also say that this is likely to be the first generation in American history to live shorter lives than their parents, primarily due to obesity-related health issues. 

Clearly, getting kids to eat better is a serious issue, but Josh Perkins, director of the Willy Street Co-op's kitchen, says he's looking forward to participating in the cooking contest primarily because it has a strong amusement value.

"There's been a fair amount of saturation on the subject of kids' diets. I don't think people are looking for a dry lecture on why you should feed your children better food, so I think this competition will provide a new twist and make the subject something fun," Perkins says. 

Through the co-op kitchen, Perkins has experience providing meals using organic, locally sourced fresh ingredients for a couple of private elementary schools in the area. Last year Wingra and Holy Cross schools hired the co-op's production kitchen to provide a hot, nutritious meal every week; Wingra is continuing the program this year but Holy Cross is not, Perkins says. 

The third chef participating in the school lunch challenge is Leah Caplan, executive chef and local food liaison at Metcalfe's Market in Madison. Caplan is the former chef/proprietor at Door County's Washington Island Hotel and Culinary School and was a pioneer in promoting notions surrounding sustainable agriculture and the use of locally sourced ingredients.

According to Miriam Grunes, executive director of the REAP group, the three chefs will be paired with principals Fred Trotter from Kegonsa Elementary in Stoughton, Mike Hernandez of Sherman Middle School in Madison and Diane Hermann from Middleton High School.  Each duo will be given $30 to spend at the Dane County Farmers' Market on the Square. They will then return to the festival, where they will cook lunch for students from the participating principals' schools.

And then the judging begins. Bon appetit, and good luck.

Editor's note: This post has been amended to distinguish the separate Food for Thought Festival and Forum events.


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