Fresh, healthy food isn’t always what we associate with school lunches, which are often loaded with sodium and processed foods, lacking in non-potato vegetables, and comprised of questionable mystery meat. Ann Cooper, the chef and author of Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children, started the Chef Ann Foundation (CAF) a decade ago in order to move away from that norm and redefine school lunches. Based in Boulder, the nonprofit has reached more than 10,000 schools and more than 3 million kids to date, providing the necessary resources and funds to enact lasting change.

In 2016, CAF launched the Real Food Challenge as an experiential event, a way to help its donors and advocates—as well as parents, chefs, and school administrators in general—to create aspirations surrounding school lunch.

“People always write us wanting to know, why aren’t schools cooking from scratch? Why are they serving processed food? It’s difficult to explain that it’s not all about funding,” says Mara Fleishman, CAF CEO. “It is partially about funding and meeting federal guidelines, but it’s also about a lack of culinary talent in school kitchens. In order to better show the process, we thought, why don’t we have people compete to create USDA compliant recipes that meet all of the things we know make for good school food? It has to be scalable, it has to taste delicious for kids, and it has to meet the Chef Ann Foundation rules of being whole foods based.”

Chef Ann Cooper
Ann Cooper with a student. Photo courtesy of the Chef Ann Foundation

The first Real School Food Challenge was conducted among Boulder parents, while later iterations took place at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, and among restaurateurs in Washington, D.C., and New Orleans. On October 1, the foundation launched the Real School Food Challenge: National Restaurant Edition, enlisting 12 chefs from San Francisco to Atlanta. Three of those chefs—Daniel Asher of River & Woods, Hosea Rosenberg of Santo, and Alon Shaya of Safta—call the Front Range home. All 12 participants have developed a recipe using the USDA’s healthy meal guidelines and $1.25 budget, the average amount allocated for a school lunch in the U.S. Throughout the month of October, all of the dishes have been added to their respective menus, with 50 percent of proceeds plus a corporate donor match benefitting the CAF.

“In addition to calling awareness to how we can improve school lunches, it’s also an exhilarating challenge for chefs to create delicious and nutritious meals on a low budget,” says Shaya, who created a roast chicken dish with hummus and banana ice cream for the challenge ($13 on the Safta menu).

Rosenberg’s dish, sweet potato and black bean enchiladas, has been added to Santo’s kids’ menu ($6), while Asher has created Asian chicken sliders with a sesame peanut sauce for River & Woods, complete with pickled vegetables and crispy kale ($15). Flavorful and nutritious, these dishes raise awareness while showcasing how a little creativity and culinary talent can affect a school district.

Additionally, five of the recipes from this challenge were selected for their taste, scalability, and presentation—including Asher’s chicken sliders. He and the other finalists will travel to Brooklyn on October 28 to compete at StarChefs International Congress, where a team of judges will select the best dish. Competition aside, the real winners are the children who stand to benefit when some of these recipes end up on the Lunch Box, CAF’s national portal for school food professionals.

“We have around 300 USDA compliant school food recipes on the Lunch Box, and we test every recipe out in an actual school district, using school production equipment and kids as taste testers,” says Fleishman. “We’ll take these recipes, along with others developed in Real School Food Challenge events, and keep them in a list. Eventually, different partners will ask to fund the final production to help them get up on the Lunch Box.”

By making the effort to patronize the participating restaurants and order one of these three dishes this month, you’re financially supporting that goal. Needless to say, bring the kids along.