Ready, set, chop! On Saturday, March 21, 65 middle and high school teams will compete in the state’s eighth annual Junior Iron Chef VT. This local foods cooking challenge empowers youth to connect with where food comes from, healthy eating, and from-scratch cooking. Since its founding, the competition has more than doubled the number of participants with teams coming from every corner of the state.
This year’s Jr Iron Chef VT is particularly timely. Since last year’s competition, First Lady Michelle Obama and the White House administration began conversations about how to introduce basic culinary skills in schools as a way to promote healthier eating. Yesterday, U.S. Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) introduced the bipartisan Farm to School Act of 2015 to increase federal resources committed to bringing fresh, local foods to schools nationwide.
One of the first youth culinary competitions to focus on local food and school meals, Jr Iron Chef VT is one example of the state’s groundbreaking farm to school efforts. Vermont has some of the longest-standing programs in the country. Today, eighty-nine percent of Vermont schools are involved with farm to school programming thanks to state policymakers, food service professionals, and nonprofit organizations, including the founders of Jr Iron Chef VT: Vermont Food Education Every Day (VT FEED, a partnership of NOFA-VT and Shelburne Farms) and the Burlington School Food Project.
The impact of Jr Iron Chef VT is broad and can last beyond graduation for many participants. Maraika Lumholdt, a South Burlington High School and Jr Iron Chef VT alumna is serving as a judge this year. “I know from personal experience that the process of competing is a real challenge, but it pays off,” Maraika said. “Jr Iron Chef VT inspired me to think about food in a new way – where food comes from to its preparation. While creating recipes, my teammates and I learned about the connection between farms, nutrition, and taste and how to cook well while working together.”
Guided by coaches – local chefs, food service directors, and teachers – student teams create original recipes that incorporate local 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 in the Vermont Statehouse, and their dishes will also be featured on school lunch menus around the state.
A selection of the dishes on this year’s Jr Iron Chef VT menu: Vermont Root Vegetable Empanada with Maple Adobe Sauce; Ricotta Gnocchi with Butternut Basil Sauce in Kale Spinach Nest; and Sensational, Satisfying, Seasonal Soup.
Some of the 20 Jr Iron Chef VT judges working under the guidance of Chef Jim Birmingham of the New England Culinary Institute include: Lake Champlain Chocolates Research and Development Specialist Lauren Deitsch, Hotel Vermont Executive Chef Doug Paine, and Twin Valley alum and Hermitage Club Chef Joel Gonzalez.
The 8th Annual Jr Iron Chef VT will take place Saturday, March 21 from 9:00am to 3:30pm at the Champlain Valley Expo Center in Essex Junction, VT. Cost for attendance is $3 for an individual, $5 for a family. Jr Iron Chef VT is sponsored by several local and state entities including Northfield Savings Bank; Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets; and Blodgett. Its media sponsor is WCAX. For more information, please visit www.jrironchefvt.org.