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Top Chef takes on school lunch

Jun. 24, 2010

by intern Christine Binder

When I heard that Sam Kass, White House assistant chef and Food Initiative Coordinator, was going to be the guest judge on Bravo TV’s Top Chef this week, I knew this would be a must-see episode. For those of you who didn’t tune in last night, let me give you a quick recap. No spoilers, I promise!

After creating some seriously tasty-looking “bipartisandwiches” for the Quickfire Challenge, the 16 contestants broke into four teams. For the Elimination Challenge, each team was charged with the task of cooking a delicious, nutritionally balanced lunch for 50 D.C. middle school students, a seemingly simple assignment, except for one major twist. Each team was only allotted a budget of $134, which comes to $2.68 per child, the federal reimbursement rate for school lunches. Chef Kass explained that because this money is used for labor and supplies in addition to ingredients, he would be subtracting $4 from their total budgets, leaving them with $130, which he described as a “major gift,” since schools usually only have roughly $1 to spend on ingredients.

As I expected, the chefs had a very difficult time adhering to this restrictive budget. At the Judge’s Table, one chef confessed, “We found ourselves at the cash register sacrificing creativity to keep substance in our meal.” The struggling teams also sacrificed nutrition, failing to include enough fruits and vegetables and “loading up with a lot of starch and sugar…the easy thing to do,” according to Kass.

Overall, I thought this was a great episode because it drove home two major points. First, cooking a healthy and delicious school lunch with a budget of $2.60 is a difficult challenge. Doing the same with only $1 for ingredients is much, much harder, which is why it’s so important for us to tell Congress to fully fund child nutrition programs.

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