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.