By: Krystal Register, MS, RDN, LDN, Senior Director, Health & Well-being, FMI and Cynthia Brazzel, Senior Director, Member Relations and Advocacy (Western Region), FMI
Sometimes we don’t really grasp how one program, grounded by a local grocery store, and supported by an entire community, can impact the lives of so many until we get a chance to see that impact firsthand. What an honor when Northgate Gonzalez Markets invited us to be an intimate part of one such program.
As official judges for the final contestants of the 2023 Cooking Up Change program, we felt the impact. With support from Northgate, Kid Healthy has partnered with the Healthy Schools Campaign to bring Cooking Up Change to Orange County, CA since 2012. This year marked the 10th such event, and we were honored to be there representing FMI.
Cooking Up Change inspires and challenges high school culinary students to create a healthy school lunch meal on a tight budget ($2.35 per meal) while meeting high standards for nutrition, taste, presentation and originality – no easy task! This contest pushes students to focus on creating delicious AND nutritious food using only the ingredients, preparation methods and equipment available to school foodservice. Student teams learn about and promote healthy eating while engaging with health, education, policy and community leaders to make an impact on school food.
Oscar Gonzalez, co-president of Northgate Gonzalez Markets, took to the stage to acknowledge the hard work, partnerships and community collaboration that it takes to bring the Cooking Up Change event to life, year after year. “Food brings people together,” Gonzalez explained as he thanked the entire community for supporting this incredible event. Gonzalez also celebrated the dedication and passion of Teresa Blanco, director of community engagement & wellness, who coordinates this entire event.
Each competing team of high school students skillfully prepared a lunch meal to meet the National School Lunch Program nutrition guidelines and strict budget constraints with the guidance of both their school culinary instructors and a local chef mentor. The students were trained in everything from food safety to public speaking, and each group delivered a top-notch dish with compelling personal stories and culinary influence from their own unique cultural backgrounds.
Judging this competition was no easy task. The students all rose to the occasion, proudly explaining ingredients, cooking techniques, flavor profiles, missed attempts and perfected recipes. As judges, we grilled them with questions including:
“What was the most challenging part of your dish?”
“How did you work together as a team?”
“What did your fellow students think about this lunch when they tried it?”
“Do you think this would be popular at your school?”
“What inspired you the most?”
We heard stories about parents who worked their way up in the culinary world from dishwasher to chefs, we heard about blending flavors from different backgrounds (Greek, Vietnamese, Thai, etc.) to appeal to a diverse student body, we heard about vegetarian students skipping lunch because they had no good lunch options, and student athletes left hungry for fuel. The culinary teams delivered prize-winning meals that delivered on taste, appearance, originality, culture and overall presentation. In the end, the judges agreed that ALL of the students were winners, but there were a few standouts that were honorably recognized and granted prizes.
What does it take to pull this off? Community collaboration with a strong advocate like Northgate Gonzalez Markets - the perfect example of positivity and passion resulting in an impactful program bringing together a supportive retailer, vendors and sponsors, community partners, high school culinary students and teachers, chef mentors, Kid Healthy and the National School Lunch Program. The result? Incredibly thoughtful, delicious and nutritious school meals inspired by young talented students who can stand tall and be proud of the hard work and amazing dishes they create! And, the extra cherry on top of this program is that Northgate actually hires from this talented group of students, which helps foster their culinary careers even further.
Hear more about how grocers are doing good in local communities in our Community Uplift Awards.