Pittsburgh Students Compete to Create Tasty, Healthy School Lunches

Published by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette  |  Read the full article


As a young competitive swimmer growing up in Allentown, Jessica Lewis didn’t often get to enjoy the spoils of her school’s daily lunch menus of pizza, chicken fingers or mashed potatoes. Instead, she got a balanced meal in a bag from home, with plenty of healthy protein, fruits and vegetables.

“The lunch trays were what you wanted, not what your mom or dad would ever feed you,” she said. “I had the dreaded packed lunch.”

That sense of well-rounded nutrition might not have played well in the middle school lunchroom. But Ms. Lewis said an early respect and understanding of proper eating was vital as she became an all-American swimmer at the University of Virginia, and it helps in her work as the chef of Carota Café at Smallman Galley in the Strip District.

Now, she’s bringing her breadth of knowledge and experience to Pittsburgh kids as one of 15 local chefs pairing with middle school students for the Community Kitchen’s annual Project Lunch Tray. Sponsored by BNY Mellon Foundation of Southwestern Pennsylvania, the aim is to teach kids kitchen and cooking skills along with educating them about a proper diet.

Round one of the two-part competition begins at 9 a.m. today at Smallman Galley. Students will aim to create a school lunch that is healthy, tasty, of proper portion size and meets mandated government requirements. Up for grabs is the coveted Steel Lunch Tray award.

Leah Northrop’s middle school students in the after-school cooking club at Pitt’s Falk Laboratory School have been training since the fall for the event. They’ve learned knife skills and kitchen safety in addition to their food education with the help of Community Kitchen Education and outreach manager Tom Samilson and Ms. Lewis.

Today they’ll make a baked herbed and bread-crusted chicken with lemon broccoli and orzo.

“It’s a pretty awesome menu they’ve sorted out,” Ms. Northrop said. “I hope it’s good, and they reproduce it well.”

Ms. Lewis said part of the fun for her has been exposing the kids to not only new foods but also  thinking about the way they eat.

On one visit to the class she said she brought a variety of radishes for the kids to sample — not exactly Jolly Ranchers to a 12-year-old.

“Most of them made faces, but they tried something new,” she said. “Just bringing the knowledge was important. Taste and preference come over time.”

She said learning how to eat right at a young age played a big role in her life. So she wants to contribute back to the Pittsburgh community by teaching kids about fun and healthy food and showing them how food can heal.

by Dan Gigler

Chea Davis