Between all of the popular fast food restaurants and junk food favorites, it can be hard to find a truly good (and healthy) home-cooked meal. However, some of Kentucky’s own youth in the Farm to School program hope to spread the word about the benefits of making health-conscious choices when it comes to cooking food.
The Kentucky Farm to School program is sponsored by the Kentucky Department of Agriculture and aims to educate youth about local food production and healthy eating. This program sponsors a unique competition for high school students to develop culinary experience and skills.
The Kentucky Farm to School Junior Chef Cook-Off began in 2013 where fifteen teams made it past the district and regional rounds to compete at the Kentucky State Fair for the title of Junior Chef.
This year’s state competition, August 14-22, again features 15 teams vying for the title at the Kentucky State Fair. Winning the Junior Chef title at the Kentucky State Fair continues to be the highest achievement for students.
Schools and programs represented at the Junior Chef Cook Off include: Boyle County, Thomas Nelson, Pikeville, Corbin, Owsley County, Barren County, Bellevue, Madison Southern, Owen County, Montgomery County, Fern Creek, Bath County, Apollo, Henderson County and Ballard Memorial.
Each team is required to have a coach. These coaches volunteer their time to help mentor the students and prepare them for the cook-off. Lee Etta Greer of Montgomery County 4-H and Kelly Scott of Pikeville High school are two of the 15 coaches competing at the state cook-off.
Both coaches started up their program’s teams after learning about the Farm to School program. Both coached last year’s first teams through district, regional and state competitions and continue to coach this year.
Teams can have up to five students participating and allow alternates. Students must dedicate their time to practicing not only their own skills but also working together to create an end product worth the title of Junior Chef Champion.
Teams hold tryouts for those students truly passionate about cooking.
“They have to cut an onion and then cut a potato into French fries, which that lets me see their knife skills. Then they have to bring in their signature dish—something they’ve cooked that is not totally from a box,” said Scott.
Once the team is formed, creating an effective practice schedule around all of the student’s other extra-curriculars can be difficult. Each practice can be demanding, especially the closer it gets to the cook off. Only having a few days per week available, some practices run as long as three hours. It is important that students stay organized and motivated to improve their skills.
“You have to show them the proper movements and let them get the hang of it. It takes practice,” said Greer of teaching her students correct knife handling skills.
Practices involve cooking the same dish over and over again in order to perfect it. Teams must consider their past mistakes and correct them before the state competition. Food for practice can be very expensive, but some teams have innovative ways of dealing with the costs.
“People in the community will give a donation that is usually close to covering the cost of the dish,” Scott said. “We cook it as practice and then give them a full pan so they don’t have to cook dinner that night.”
Local chefs and markets are utilized in practices as well. Students can learn about locally grown processes, cooking skills and ways to refine their recipes from professionals. Some of the coaches are also able to offer their experienced guidance.
“I work with the culinary arts instructor at the Jobs Corps,” said Greer. “I have some experience with different chefs.”
Teams are judged on how well they work together, leadership, preparation and clean up, knowledge of food and their recipe, and how the finished product looks, smells, tastes and more.
Some teams reach out to their communities to share their knowledge and help spread the ideals of the Kentucky Farm to School program.
“The students do a cooking video once a month for our news show. It’s a short segment in which they teach kids to make a snack or something simple. It’s nice seeing them embrace it and share it with other students,” said Scott.
Team members at Pikeville write news articles focused on health and share a recipe in their local paper once a month. Spreading the word about healthy cooking doesn’t stop there, students have helped host an event in their city park and have even been featured on morning radio stations.
Some students involved in the Farm to School program plan to take it to the next level by going to college for a culinary major or minor. Teams competing at the Junior Chef Cook Off have the chance to win scholarships to Sullivan University, one of the top culinary schools in the state.
The knowledge and experience gained will be utilized whether those involved are pursuing a culinary degree in the future or not. It is beneficial to be able to cook for a family and make healthy choices.
“If they don’t take anything else out of it, they will learn to do some cooking, even if just for themselves,” said Greer.
Before the Farm to School program, high school students didn’t have the opportunity to learn about local and healthy food decision-making while also being able to win a title and scholarships.
Now, the program is gaining popularity and each team is showing signs of more involvement.
“I’ve had people who graduated who ask why this wasn’t around when they were in school,” said Scott. “It’s nice to see everyone thinking about it and involved with the team.”
It is important that the Kentucky State Fair and Kentucky Department of Agriculture hold this event. People need to know how to cook, eat healthy and know about locally grown foods. With health issues like obesity and diabetes so prominent today, it is essential to educate the youth of our state on healthy choices.
The Kentucky Farm to School Junior Chef Cook-Off is an excellent program that benefits students in so many ways and helps to shape a healthier Kentucky. The champion will be crowned at the Kentucky State Fair on August 22.