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

Oakland’s Skyline High School Advances in Recipe Contest 18 May,2011Nina Thorsen


Nina Thorsen

Nina Thorsen is a KQED radio producer and director, and frequently reports on sports, food and culture.  

She co-created and produced KQED’s Pacific Time,  a weekly radio program on Asian and Asian American issues that aired from 2000 to 2007. Before coming to KQED, Thorsen was the deputy foreign editor for Marketplace.  In her home state of Minnesota, she worked for A Prairie Home Companion and for Public Radio International.  

Nina was honored by the Radio-TV News Directors Association of Northern California in 2012 for a series of stories on the Oakland A’s stadium.  She is a graduate of the University of Minnesota with a degree in speech-communication. 

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