Ready, set, chop! On Saturday, March 19, 58 middle and high school teams will compete in this year’s Jr Iron Chef VT. In its ninth year, this youth culinary competition was one of the first in the nation to focus on local food and school meals. Participation has more than doubled since its founding, and teams now come from every corner of the state. It has challenged and inspired nearly 3,000 kids to connect with where food comes from, cook from scratch, and eat healthy, local foods.
These lessons are more important now than ever. One third of children in the U.S. eat fast food daily, according to a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study. Obesity rates have doubled nationally over recent decades, and 26 percent of Vermont teens are overweight or obese. Legislatures in different states have wrestled with how to curb salt, sugar, and carb intakes.
This year’s Jr Iron Chef VT also comes on the heels of the newly proposed reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act. The bill being considered includes recommendations from the Farm to School Act of 2015 to increase Farm to School Grant program funding from $5 to $10 million annually. It would also make programs more accessible; include preschool, summer, and afterschool programs; and generate market opportunities for beginning, socially disadvantaged, tribal, and veteran farmers. While the financial needs of Farm to School programs in recent years have surpassed available funds, a reauthorized bill would mean that millions more students nationwide would have access to Farm to School programs.
A champion of the Farm to School Act of 2015, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) will be participating in this year’s Jr Iron Chef VT. At the end of the morning heat, Senator Leahy will share an update of his work on the Child Nutrition Act, hand out awards to winning teams, and visit with students and their families.
The judge’s panel includes: Vermont House Representative Jill Krowinski, James Beard winning cookbook author Molly Stevens, and St. Johnsbury Academy student Peggy Fischer, who was a finalist in the Food Network’s Kids Baking Championships, among others. Just 10-years old, Fischer is Jr Iron Chef VT’s youngest-ever judge.
Guided by coaches – local chefs, food service directors, and teachers – Jr Iron Chef VT student teams create original recipes that incorporate seasonal foods. Students work through real-life challenges similar to those food service face to create healthy, nutritious school lunches, including sourcing ingredients themselves. Teams have just 90 minutes to prepare their kid-tested, seasonal fare. Jr Iron Chef VT winning teams will have the opportunity to prepare their recipes for legislators at the Vermont Statehouse, and their dishes will be featured on school lunch menus around the state. A selection of dishes on this year’s Jr Iron Chef VT menu: Triple Grain and Butternut Squash Shepherd’s Pie, Bleu Bernie Stromboli, and Falafel Rainbow Spinach Wraps.
The lessons of Jr Iron Chef VT last beyond event day for many participants. “Competing in Jr Iron Chef VT taught me key disciplines that I still use in the kitchen and in life,” said Andrew Merinoff, a Vermont Academy alum now working on farm-to-table start up companies in New York and Colorado. “It built a sense of teamwork and task-orientation unparalleled to anything I’d experienced. I carry these skills through my work today.”
Jr Iron Chef VT is just one of many groundbreaking and long-standing Farm to School programs of Vermont Food Education Every Day (VT FEED, a partnership project of NOFA-VT and Shelburne Farms). Thanks to state policymakers, food service professionals, teachers, and support organizations like VT FEED, today 89 percent Vermont schools are involved with Farm to School activities.
The ninth annual Jr Iron Chef VT will take place Saturday, March 19 from 9:00am to 3:30pm at the Champlain Valley Expo Center in Essex Junction, VT. The entry fee is $3 for an individual and $5 for a family (up to four people). Award ceremonies for the two heats are at 12:00pm and 3:15pm. Jr Iron Chef VT is sponsored by VT businesses and organizations including VT Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets; New England Culinary Institute; Blodgett; Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Vermont; Merchant's Bank; University of Vermont Medical Center; Vermont Department of Health; and WCAX. For more information, please visit www.jrironchefvt.org.
Vermont Food Education Every Day (VT FEED) is a statewide Farm to School program that raises awareness about healthy food, good nutrition, and the role of Vermont farms and farmers in rebuilding healthy food systems. VT FEED offers professional development services and resources to teachers and school food service, provides technical assistance to farmers and school professionals, and connects youth with agriculture and healthy food through such events as Junior Iron Chef Vermont, established in 2008 as one of the first youth culinary competitions to focus on local food and school meals. VT FEED also published the first-ever school cookbook to incorporate new USDA nutrition guidelines in recipes created by and for school chefs, featuring local, seasonal ingredients. Called “groundbreaking” by Ann Cooper, a powerful voice for school food reform, New School Cuisine is helping transform the way we feed children across the country. VT FEED’s work has been featured in EatingWell, Associated Press, and The Boston Globe. Cultivating links between classrooms, cafeterias, communities, and local farms, VT FEED is a partnership project of Shelburne Farms and the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont.