‘Top Chef’ should take up the ultimate challenge: school lunch

Season 7 of Bravo’s Top Chef will be based in Washington, D.C., reported the Metrocurean (no relation) a few days ago, with filming to begin in early April. That means that the popular reality show, with its supersized personalities and offbeat kitchen challenges, will be in Washington at the same time as Congress is considering the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, which provides funding and guidelines for the national school lunch program. (Need background on what's at stake? Read Debra Eschmeyer's post for Ethicurean).

With school lunch being debated on Capitol Hill, "Top Chef" should get in on the action and focus some kitchen challenges on school meals. One challenge could have each contestant try to cook a collection of delicious and healthy meals (breakfast and lunch) that spend less than $1 on food per meal.  Another might be to cook in a real school, perhaps H.D. Cooke Elementary School, the setting of The Slow Cook’s excellent multi-part series on school meals, or use the actual school kitchen staff as assistants, though this one might be getting a bit close to the upcoming Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution on ABC. The contestants could also integrate ingredients from local farms with USDA-provided material.

Washington and the school lunch community also offers plenty of interesting possibilities for guest judges: First Lady Michele Obama, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Chef Ann Cooper (the "renegade lunch lady"), or a room full of cute and opinionated schoolchildren.

I don’t know how much of a delay "Top Chef" has between filming and broadcast, so even if they took up the school lunch challenge, Congress might have already acted* – Agweek says that Sen. Lincoln (D-AR) hopes to hold a markup session in the Senate Agriculture Committee on March 26 (via Slow Food USA) and it is not inconceivable that the new legislation could pass quickly. Nonetheless, a high-profile show like Top Chef could help shine more light on the sorry state of our school lunches and inspire action to improve them.

To stay up to date on school lunch news, visit The Lunch Box (a project of the Food Family Farming Foundation, launched by Chef Ann Cooper, which has a good Twitter feed), Slow Food USA’s Time for Lunch campaign, and School Food FOCUS.

* But I wouldn’t bet on it, given the unprecedented levels of Republican obstructionism in the Senate. Even on items with unanimous approval, like the confirmation of Judge Barbara Milano Keenan, which took 6+ months to get to a 99-0 vote on cloture and her final confirmation.

8 Responsesto “‘Top Chef’ should take up the ultimate challenge: school lunch”

  1. Nancy says:

    If I'm not mistaken, TC did a school lunch challenge a couple of seasons back. I could be thinking of a different cooking competition, though! It would be neat to see them do something more in-depth, though.

  2. Jan says:

    The problem is not the ideas for good food; the problem is the powers-that-be are unwilling to spend the money on decent food.

  3. adr says:

    there was a school lunch challenge before, but the challenge was making food that doesn't appeal to kids (such as monkfish), and getting kids to eat it.  i like the challenge idea of making a healthy, low-cost lunch.

  4. Jane Hersey says:

    Well the good news about school lunches is that a school can actually spend LESS money and get far superior food!  Please check out http://www.School-Lunch.org to learn about a rural Vermont community where the school lunch menu sounds like it comes from an upscale bistro.  But rather than spending more on food, the school's costs went down drastically when they switched from the horrible foodless junk to real food.  What few people realize is the very little of the cost of junky meals goes for the actual food; most of it is spent on processing, packaging and profits with lots of folks in the middle earning their salaries from it.  Schools don't need expensive equipment or expensive food; the USDA commodity foods can be used wisely to create real nourishment!

  5. adr -- Thanks for the info about the previous school lunch challenge*.  On Gordon Ramsey's "Hell's Kitchen" (Season 1, I think), children were the "judges" at the show's restaurant, but I don't recall if the contestants were cooking something special or simply trying to get the finished dishes out of the kitchen using a menu designed by Ramsey.

    Jan -- More money is indeed the critical need. When Ann Cooper took over and revamped the Berkeley school lunch program, the overhaul required outside funding from groups like the Chez Panisse Foundation because the base funding level was too low.  And so, I made this suggestion not because I think that a handful of reality show contestants will discover a new paradigm of school lunch cooking that makes everything OK, but because it would provide an unusual discussion forum (so to speak) for school lunch issues. By being part of the "Top Chef" program, perhaps the school lunch message would reach a new audience and create new pressure points on the policy makers that control the funding. There are indeed already lots of great ideas about how to cook better meals, if only more money was allocated (and, in some school districts, if real kitchens were available instead of simple reheating equipment).

    Jane -- I don't know the detailed economics of the supply chain, but wouldn't be surprised if processing takes up a significant portion of food expenses.  Along the lines of better food for less money, a new study that was covered in Medical News Today (via Slow Food USA) showed that farm to school programs can improve school meals while not raising costs. There are many reasons for this. One example: fruit that is too small to meet grocery store standards might be the perfect size for young children, and schools can buy it at a discount because of the non-standard size.

    * As for serving monkfish in schools, that's a really bad idea, as the fish is on Monterey Bay Aquarium's "avoid" list. In the "Top Chef" episodes that I've seen, there has been little awareness of seafood sustainability, with plenty of "red list" fish being served (Chilean sea bass, monkfish, red snapper).

  6. Bill Peterson says:

    Every Chef that has ever been videotaped has attempted to "SAVE" children from "school lunch".

    Every one of them has failed.  Every single one.   It is BY FAR the most laughable of all TV Scams.

    At the root of this absurdity is the idea that the millions.....yes millions of people in this country who work for an entire career in the industry that actually FEEDS CHILDREN ....must be morons who wish to poison children or at least turn them into fat little morons and send them home to their "caring" parents.

    There is a HUGE group of highly educated, highly skilled, caring professionals that deal with these issues today.........and have dealt with them for decades before some Idiot Editor decided....."oh let's do another dumb piece on how bad school food is".

    Some TV Chef who is chasing waitresses in the morning and telling the school foodservice industry how to feed children in the afternoon....is NOT the arbitor of food morality.    Neither is the pimple faced intern that takes the worn out old idea to some in-the-tank producer who can't think of anything better to waste out time with.    Neither is the blond silicone tited "MOMMY" who sits at home all day dreaming up new ways to seem "caring" while the rest of the women in the world are out earning their way.

  7. Chris Brandow says:

    let's get this done!!

    add school lunch challenge to top chef facebook group:

    http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=10150152491575227&ref=mf

  8. Beth says:

    If you don't like what is served at school, pack a lunch for your children.  Parents should be responsible enough to pack a lunch.  They are lying on the lunch applications.  Parents don't need to provide any documentation when they fill out the lunch applications.  PACK A LUNCH if you don't like what the government is providing to your children or go back to your country.