An event that aims to feed the future is being sponsored by a nonprofit with a name that’s hard to forget.
Blue Watermelon Project’s annual Feeding the Future culinary contest challenges students to create healthy, great-tasting meals that meet the requirements of the National School Lunch Program, National School Breakfast Program and Afterschool Snack Program.
The contest gives both students and the surrounding community a better understanding of the challenges that school food professionals face and the ever-changing conditions that impact access to good food in schools.
While the contest teaches students to develop tasty, nutritious, and affordable school meals that can be served to Arizona school children, the public can join in the fun by tasting the creative dishes that the top 10 student teams are presenting to guest judges at the Farm at South Mountain with live music, yard games and children’s activities.
There’s an extra green in those dishes – or so the teams hope: first place receives $5,000, second place receives $3,000, and third place receives $2,000.
This year, finalists include Concordia Charter School in Mesa, Perry High, Chandler High, Casteel High and Queen Creek High.
Charleen Badman, chef and co-owner of FnB Restaurant in Scottsdale, said the idea began 13 years ago.
“I was asked to come to visit a school that had a really beautiful garden, and still does to this day and make a connection with all the beautiful things that were growing in this garden and be able to have students be able to enjoy it in a culinary way,” Badman recalled.
Since officially starting in 2016, Blue Watermelon Project has grown from its first location at Echo Canyon School in Scottsdale to 24 other schools across the state.
The nonprofit comprises chefs, restauranteurs, farmers and community food advocates who want children to have access to wholesome food in school. It does so by working with K-12 students, parents and the community to integrate taste education and interactive programming into their curriculum and everyday life.
With funding a growing issue for many schools, the program also gives the students an idea of what their school food professionals endure daily.
The guidelines set forth by the NSLP act as the contest rules and require students to get creative in the kitchen and have pride in the dish they whip up.
“It’s a lot of moving stuff around, because, you know, they may be like three cents over, but they have all the nutritional parts, and they bring the cost down, and then the next thing they know, maybe they don’t have enough calories, because they have to make sure they stay within those guidelines,” Badman said.
For Blue Watermelon, much of their funding comes from the support of The Steele Foundation and Sprouts Healthy Communities Foundation, but for schools the answer isn’t so easy peasy lemon squeezy.
For approximately 1 million schools in the country, the federal government provides around $3.23 for each lunch served to a student who qualifies for a free meal. After labor and other costs, schools have about one dollar per meal to spend on food, according to a press release.
Iris Tirado, food and nutrition manager at Concordia Charter School, said it gets kids excited, not just to participate in the competition when they get to fifth grade, but even for Tirado when she was featured on Blue Watermelon’s YouTube channel “Chef in the Garden.”
“They get really excited because they identify themselves with it,” Tirado said.
Tirado retired from the Madison Metropolitan School District after 22 years and said while the school works with local farmers on the availability of fresh produce, Blue Watermelon helps with the recent inflation and price increases.
“When they provide these new recipes and are successful already, then we can try it on our schools and they already analyze to be in compliance with the cost of food cost and the nutrient analysis,” Tirado said. “So, it’s nice to have all these new ideas to be able to incorporate it in our program.”
Chad Faria, culinary teacher at Casteel High School, has helped his students participate in the program for the past four years, but Covid-19 pandemic nixed one of those years.
Faria spent 12 years in the restaurant industry before he became a teacher 15 years ago and said the most important aspect of this event remains the financial aspect because cooking shows show you how to bake and baste, but they don’t show the bottom line.
“This program teaches kids about money and that’s a whole different component that’s actually necessary,” Faria said. “So, the financial component of it is really key, not only the nutritional side, or the creativity, but the financial component.”
As a teacher, Faria said he enjoys the real-world applications this program gives his students that helps to get that life lesson across to them.
“Well, the fact that they can do something, and use the skills they learn in a classroom immediately,” Faria said.
This event also gives his students perspective on the work that goes into the educational ecosystem beyond just teachers, especially the school food professionals that work hard to feed them every day.
“So, it really allows them to see how hard they work and it gives them a little more respect of what other people do in the school structure that is outside of the realm of just teachers,” Faria said.
That respect comes well-deserved especially the work school food professionals went through with Covid-19 pandemic and the recent economic downturn that’s now hit the food industry rather hard.
“Even with all these cuts and everything, they’re making do with what they have, and the kids don’t notice it,” Faria said. “I find that really impressive, that they’re still making it happen.”
Angela Stutz has spent 15 years as the culinary arts instructor at Perry High School and said this program helps students understand the food, work and money that goes into their school lunch, it gets them involved in the process and gives them feedback from adults outside of school.
“So I think just all around, them being able to, not only work with these amazing Blue Watermelon chefs,” Stutz said. “Getting out and showing the community what they created, gives them empowerment.”
Even as they’ve navigated the Covid-19 pandemic, the recent issues with inflation and supply shortages haven’t made it a cake walk for Stutz.
“As a culinary teacher, my biggest struggle, which is the same struggle that a regular person in their home has, just trying to get ingredients,” Stutz said.
Despite the struggles, Stutz said programs like Blue Watermelon have shown her students build their confidence and gives them opportunities that impact their lives.
“Not everyone goes to college,” Stutz said. “And by having Career and Technical Education classes in our schools, it is making a pathway for students to do other things.”
Before she became a teacher, Chef Priscilla Ortiz spent 10 years at the Flying Fish restaurant at Disney’s Boardwalk Resort in Orlando, Florida.
Now, Ortiz teaches at Chandler High School and said in a school cafeteria flavor can sometimes go on the backburner to the nutritional rules that schools have to follow, but programs like Blue Watermelon can help reinvigorate a school’s flavor palette.
“Having a chef paired with it, their possibilities can be immense with the same ingredients that they have just used differently,” Ortiz said.
Besides understanding the different positions in the culinary industry, Ortiz said she wants her students to walk away knowing something as simple as flavor can make a huge difference in their lunch experience and that of others too.
“I feel like that’s going to be even more rewarding to our students to understand how great that is,” Ortiz said. “That not only are they making a meal for someone, they’re making them happy.”
If You Go...
Feeding The Future 2023
When: January 28, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Where: The Farm at South Mountain, 6106 South 32nd Street, Phoenix, AZ 85042
Tickets: Students and school food professionals: $25; School administrators: $50; Public: $100
All proceeds benefit Blue Watermelon Project.