Eco Top Chef: Engaging Middle Schoolers in the Food System

I had the pleasure this weekend of attending the Eco Top Chef Marin final competition: the culmination of two months of food and cooking education for groups of 6th, 7th, and 8th graders from seven middle schools across Marin County. The program was executed by Teens Turning Green, a nonprofit of which I’ve served on the board for the past two years. I hadn’t read much about the Eco Top Chef program before coming to the event and I was blown away by what I witnessed. I’ve never been prouder to be involved with an organization as I was on Saturday.

Seven teams of ten middle schoolers spent the past two months learning about healthy food, sustainable ingredients, fair trade, school lunch regulations, and menus. Each school team was partnered with a chef from a sustainably-minded restaurant in Marin (including Sol Hernandez, the owner of one of my all-time favorites—Sol Food—I was star-struck! Full list of the illustrious chefs here). The students and their chefs field-tripped to Whole Foods to study ingredient labels, to the farmers’ market to learn about the benefits of buying locally and organically, to Green Gulch Farm to see farming in action, and finally to the restaurant of their partner chef. The teams applied everything they’d learned at the Eco Top Chef Finale: a cooking competition to create a healthy and delicious lunch for middle school students costing no more than $1.35 per serving, accordant with the federal school lunch reimbursement rate (excluding cost of labor). The students presented their meals to the (awesome) judges and shared how they addressed the challenges of sourcing local and organic, balancing health with kid-friendliness, and meeting tough budget constraints. Judges scored based on a range of criteria including taste, sustainability, and health. First, second, and third place prizes were given out and then the audience had a chance to eat the food.

What struck me most about the event was listening to the kids. Each participant was interviewed on camera before the event and shared what they had learned. Here are my favorites:

  • “I learned how much sugar we normally eat and have eaten a lot less since”
  • “Now I look at ingredients in the grocery store and can tell my mom not to buy it if it has high fructose corn syrup”
  • “I know that GMOs aren’t labeled and they should be”
  • “I understand now how much more money goes to farmers when you buy at the farmers’ market instead of at the store”
  • “At the farmers’ market they showed us how many cups of sugar are in a candy bar. It’s hard to imagine that much sugar could be in something so small but now I know”
  • “The best part for me is seeing it happen here, in a school kitchen. If it can happen today then we now have living proof it will work and we can tell our principal. I know it works because we’re doing it right now”

The students were engaged, passionate, and empowered to change their own eating as well as their schools’ lunch programs from conventional to conscious. This is exactly what Teens Turning Green, and its Executive Director Judi Shils, are so effective at achieving: giving youth a choice, a voice, and a platform. I can’t wait to participate in future Eco Top Chef events. Stay tuned. And congrats to the team from MLK Academy in Marin City! They earned major points for growing many of their ingredients on campus, in addition to presenting a delicious meal.

Photos from the event:

Luna from MLK in Marin City

Ali from Ross Middle School

Judging panel

Pulled pork shoulder tacos

The team from Kent Middle School in Kentfield

The team from Mill Valley Middle School, my alma mater!

The beverage presented by team MVMS

The winning team, from MLK in Marin City, with their trophy

Sample budget and sourcing info from the San Domenico School team, prepared with the help of Sol Hernandez

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About Michelle Paratore

Management consultant obsessed with food justice, food politics, food start-ups, food sustainability, and eating food too...
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One Response to Eco Top Chef: Engaging Middle Schoolers in the Food System

  1. The institutions like American Designers Institute and the Society of Industrial Designers have
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