Preparing nutritious meals on a budget with limited shopping resources and limited access to fresh foods can be challenging for many adults. But students who competed in the Arkansas 4-H Food Challenge on Aug. 4 were up to the task.
The annual cooking competition, held at the University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College’s Culinary and Hospitality Management Institute in Little Rock, teaches students to create healthy dishes using ingredients found at most local corner stores (like Dollar General and Family Dollar) while learning about nutrition and food safety.
Arkansas 4-H Development Specialist Amanda Welch, who coordinated the competition, said, “Arkansas is second in childhood food insecurity and has the third-highest poverty rate in the nation, with one in four children living in poverty. Many Arkansans live in areas that have limited access to nutritious and affordable food.”
Twenty-two teams from 10 counties in two age divisions had 40 minutes to shop for ingredients, prepare a dish, plan a presentation and clean up after.
Welch said competitors did not know their food category or list of available ingredients in advance. A mock corner store and pantry were set up for the competitors to select ingredients like eggs, bacon, canned chicken, rice, flour tortillas, onions, bell peppers, heavy cream, cheese, frozen broccoli, spices and seasonings.
Teams presented final dishes to a panel of judges from the food industry and Cooperative Extension Service. During presentations, competitors explained their dish’s ingredients and nutritional value, provided the calculated cost per serving and made recommendations for substituting ingredients with healthier options. Judges tasted the dishes to rate flavor.
This year’s senior division winner, Seniors with Spatulas from Howard County, won with Southwest Cheesy Chicken Dip and homemade tortilla chips. They will compete in the 4-H National Food Challenge at the Texas State Fair in Dallas on Oct. 4.
“Today, we learned to expect the unexpected,” Seniors with Spatula member Adelene Westfall, 16, of Nashville said.
Westfall said her team plans to practice twice a week to prepare for the national competition. “In this competition, you learn so much about food and nutrition that you need every day,” she said, beaming while holding a huge trophy. “I would say my life has become a much healthier one due to the knowledge I now have of nutrition.”
Although the competition was serious, teams had a lot of fun with creative names and apparel. The Master Clovers of Madison County wore vibrant bandanas with color-coordinated shoes and chef coats bedazzled with a logo similar to the show “MasterChef.”
Master Clovers member Cadence Almas, 16, of Kingston expressed the importance of being a good team player. “Even if the competition gets stressful, I know I can rely on my teammates,” she said. Master Clovers made a chicken Alfredo dish, substituting pasta with rice, which has a lower calorie content, Almas said.
Decked out in cowboy hats and matching red aprons emblazoned with their names and using Pioneer Woman serving dishes to showcase their protein-packed bacon breakfast burritos, the Cowboy Cookers of Greene County relied on each other during the competition. Member Tate Gray, 11, of Paragould explained, “We made our presentation, and if one of us messed up our speech, the other one would pick up and back each other up.”
Welch said while the Challenge emphasizes teamwork and public speaking, it’s the life skills of cooking and making good nutritional choices that will have the most impact on healthy living.
“A lot of people in Arkansas really don’t know how to utilize food pantry resources because they were never taught how to use certain foods,” Welch said. “These kiddos are able to get creative and use foods in a nutritious way, and they can share these skills with their family and people in their communities.”
For more information on the Arkansas 4-H Food Challenge or how to join 4-H, visit 4h.uada.edu.
ARKANSAS 4-H FOOD CHALLENGE 2022 COMPETITION WINNERS
Junior Division (ages 9 to 13)
1st Place — Food Choppers, Howard County
Anna Kate McKinnon, Abi Webb, Lily Trombley and Asher Howard
2nd Place — Cooking Clovers, Pike County
Caden Ballard, Caryson Ballard, Lysander Doyle and Phinehas Doyle
3rd Place (tie) —Toast Buster, Drew County
Makayla Jones, Jaxxon Jones, Bliss Becker and Lila Becker
3rd Place (tie) — The Three Cooketeers, Grant County
Megan Rogers, Preston Bazare and Riley Campbell
Senior Division (ages 14 to 19)
1st Place — Seniors with Spatulas, Howard County
Adelene Westfall, Sarah Lamb, Christian Trombley and Kat Chambers
2nd Place — Amazin’ Glazinz, Grant County
Gracie McGinley, Audrianna Ruiz, Michael Nichols and Aubrey Ottens
3rd Place — Slice, Slice, Babies, Grant County
Dylan Rogers, Acacia Searcy, Klasey Knoefler and Daley Rogers