Local chefs will get a chance to encourage participation in the Athens agricultural scene during the second annual School Lunch Challenge on March 19. The centerpiece of this event will be a cook-off between four teams in the cafeteria of Whitehead Road Elementary School from 12:30-1:30 p.m., featuring specially created dishes following USDA guidelines.  

Kelley Robbins-Thompson, as a member of the event’s planning committee and Community Agriculture Program Director at the Athens Land Trust, provided a lot of insight into the connections between the challenge and community agriculture programs. This includes nutrition and garden education with students, and Farmer’s Programs in multiple Clarke County middle and high schools.

“We want kids out in the gardens and knowing how to do the whole ‘seed to fork’ process,” Thompson said. “A lot of what we’re doing has direct ties to what the School Lunch Challenge is trying to do in the broader community.”

Hillary Savage, School Nutrition Coordinator for the Clarke County School District, shepherded the participating teams to make sure the recipes would meet the USDA standards for the National School Lunch Program. This includes creating 250 sample size portions of their dishes that not only meet requirements in nutrient levels, but also price, which cannot exceed $1.50 per plate.

“We’ve asked for the entree to give two ounces of creditable proteins and one ounce of creditable grains,” Savage said. “In addition to having their meat and grain, we ask for them to come up with a vegetable dish that gives one half cup of creditable vegetables.”

These dishes will not only be sampled by a panel of 14 children from grades two through 12, representing 11 schools, but also attending audiences. Savage acknowledged that these requirements would make the job difficult, saying it would “definitely be a challenge,” given the dish must please notoriously picky recipients.

“It’ll be exciting to see how their ideas pan out and how the students receive the items,” Savage said. “The student-judged item that wins determines what new item will be added to the menu.”

Thompson spoke on the “multifaceted” nature of this event, which will also include six cooking demonstrations by local chefs and youths involved in local agricultural programs. This is in an effort to bulk up on the educational aspect of the challenge and further tie-ins to Athens, with use of only local produce.

“Each demo will focus on a different age group, from elementary to middle to high, each tailoring recipes to that age group for doing at home,” Thompson said. “There’s also going to be between 10-15 nonprofits with informational booths for people to learn more about what’s happening in Athens regarding food justice, sustainable agriculture and gardening, the food scene.”

Hosted by local chef Hugh Acheson, three restaurants will be represented alongside the CCSD Family and Consumer Science teachers.

In a statement by last years winner, Emmanuel Stone of the National, he described the real challenge as “hiding” the nutrition from the kids, a strategy from last year he aims to use again. Last year’s recipe from the National was a chicken burrito with quinoa and brown rice, and the dish took home the winning title.

Another participating team, Pulaski Heights BBQ led by chef Chuck Ramsey, disclosed that they plan to make a dish similar to an in-restaurant recipe, creating a beef and bean chili.

The fourth team in the contest is made of four Family and Consumer Science teachers working in the Clarke County School District. One teacher, Hope Zimmerman admitted that it was slightly intimidating working against professional chefs, but is confident in the abilities of her teammates as teachers to recognize what kids like and dislike.

“We’re very familiar with how to sneak healthy options into foods that they might not even realize are healthy options,” she said.

Zimmerman stressed the importance of events promoting healthy lifestyles, as she and her fellow teachers do in their FCS classes.

“I get to help three other teachers create a menu we believe in that’s healthy and balanced and that’s also part of the message we teach every day,” she said.

Attendees are also encouraged to bring food donations of beans-n-franks and jars of peanut butter for the Food 2 Kids program operated by the Foodbank of Northeast Georgia.