Keeping It Real
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Kids Eat Healthy With The Real School Food Challenge

Your kids’ school doesn’t have to settle for serving heated-up pizza and other processed food. Exhibit A: the Chef Ann Foundation’s Real School Food Challenge.

By Kellee Katagi

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Imagine attempting to make a nutritious, delicious, from-scratch meal…for hundreds of people—wait, make that picky children—for no more than $1.30 per kid.

That’s the gauntlet thrown by the Real School Food Challenge, an event sponsored by the nonprofit Chef Ann Foundation, based in Boulder, Colo., and founded by chef and author Ann Cooper, a.k.a. the Renegade Lunch Lady. The Challenge requires chefs to create and serve economical, scalable, real-food recipes that meet USDA school-meal guidelines. Per-meal parameters include: 750–850 calories, with fewer than 10 percent of those calories from saturated fats; 740 milligrams or fewer of sodium; 0 grams of trans fats; and set portions of protein, grains (at least 50 percent whole-grains) and produce.

“It was hard to source the right ingredients,” says Real School Food Challenge participant Kristy Lewis, CEO and founder of Quinn Snacks, which makes healthier popcorn and pretzels. “I wanted to use organic as much as possible, which is challenging, to say the least, when you’re trying to hit $1.30 per meal!”

Lewis’s recipe—Italian Meatballs over Herbed Polenta with Maple-Braised Carrots—won the Natural Products Industry 2019 Real School Food Challenge event, held in Boulder in late 2019.

With three young boys of her own, Lewis had a good idea of what would appeal to kids. “I love polenta, and corn is a huge part of Quinn,” she says. “We started the company by innovating within the microwave-popcorn category, so I wanted to incorporate this ingredient somehow. It’s also economical, so much so that you could choose to use conventional or organic. We used organic corn, herbs and spices in this recipe, plus a homemade veggie stock that gives the dish deep, aromatic flavor.” 

Meanwhile, the carrot dish Quinn created was a spinoff from her childhood. “I used to eat cooked carrots in butter and brown sugar, and I wanted to create something just as yummy, but not as rich and sugary. So, I swapped out butter and sugar for olive oil and pure maple syrup.”

The Boulder event was just one iteration of the Challenge, which launched in 2016. In October 2019, Chef Mihoko Obunai of Atlanta won the 2019 National Restaurant Edition, with a Japanese chicken curry rice recipe. Each Challenge event raises money for the Chef Ann Foundation, helping the nonprofit achieve its mission of “providing schools with the tools, training, resources and funding to create healthier food and redefine lunchroom environments.”

Chef Ann may seem like a bit of a dreamer, but her dreams are taking root, with more than 3 million students in 11,000-plus schools across the country benefiting from her efforts since the foundation launched in 2009. Find out more—and how you can get involved—at

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