School cafeteria”, “healthy”, and “tasty” aren’t words I often use in the same sentence. (My own traumatic introduction to the lunch lady was a childhood incident resulting in the nickname “Barfy.” But I digress.) Perhaps, however, my research of competitors in the USDA’s Recipes for Healthy Kids contest will snap these less-than-appetizing associations.

Northern California has produced two contending schools in the Final 15, whittled down from 340 around the country. Manteca’s Joshua Cowell School makes its bid for culinary glory in the Dark Green and Orange Vegetables category, resting its hopes on “Central Valley Harvest Bake.” And Skyline High School weighs in with “Spanish Chickpea Stew,” a Dry Beans and Peas semifinalist.

Yesterday, a team of taste-testing judges called on Skyline, on their way to visiting all 15 contenders before choosing three finalists in June. The public gets a chance to participate, too, by voting online. The final cook-off takes place at the American Culinary Federation Conference in Texas, July 25. Schools are competing for special funding for their cafeterias, not to mention gustatory acclaim. And a cookbook with all the best recipes is in the works.

The Skyline team includes students, school staff, chef Jenny Huston, and nutritionist Rusty Hopewell of the Alameda County Public Health Department, who teaches after-school cooking classes. Hopewell says that forming cooperative partnerships between schools and the culinary community is one of the overall aims of the project. He attributed the success of the Skyline recipe in part to a (formerly) secret ingredient — golden raisins, which he says add sweetness to the chickpeas, onions, spinach, and tomatoes.

In school, presentation was a consideration. Rather than simply placing its stew among the lunchline’s prosaic pizza and ho-hum hot dogs, Skyline’s team pushed a cartful of free samples around campus to build demand.

Hopewell reports that the stew sells out whenever its on the menu.

Listen to nutritionist Rusty Hopewell describe how schools got away from making food from scratch


Nina Thorsen

Nina Thorsen is a radio producer and director, and frequently reports on sports issues.  Previously, she produced and co-created KQED's "Pacific Time" and was the deputy foreign editor for "Marketplace". Thorsen began her public radio career while a student at the University of Minnesota, as a ticket taker for "A Prairie Home Companion".

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