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Students compete as chefs in seven-county challenge

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POTSDAM — An appetizing aroma drew a large crowd to the A.A. Kingston Middle School gym on Saturday during the second-annual North Country Junior Iron Chef challenge.

Seven counties were invited and 17 middle school teams and six high school teams showed up to compete, bringing their cooking gear.

The 90-minute countdown started at 10 a.m. as the middle-school teams began cooking the recipes they’ve been working on since November.

Sarah Bentley-Garfinkel, event coordinator and school program director for the St. Lawrence Health Initiative, said the students register in November and by Feb. 1 submit for review their recipes, which have to match certain criteria.

“We make sure they include both local foods and commodity ingredients, which are ingredients provided by the USDA to schools,” she said.

Ms. Bentley-Garfinkel said organizers also check to make sure the recipes are generally healthy choices and food-service friendly.

“So, recipes that are realistically able to be replicated in a school cafeteria,” she said.

Ms. Bentley-Garfinkel said there was a positive community response to the competition last year, and there’s been considerable growth and interest since then.

“Last year we had 12 middle school and five high school teams compete,” she said. “One of the things we loved most was hearing that after last year’s competition, a lot of the teams brought their recipes back to their schools and presented it to school boards or wellness committees or back to the cafeterias for students to taste-test and for meals.”

Ms. Bentley-Garfinkel said that was the ultimate goal. She said St. Lawrence Health Initiative, Potsdam, started the competition to give school children the opportunity to learn cooking and food preparation skills.

“There’s a lot of research that shows that kids who are healthier are more likely to succeed in school, and we know that they’re more likely to develop healthy habits that last a lifetime,” she said. “We often hear kids talking about school food in not-so-positive ways, so this is a positive chance for them to get involved in that school food conversation.”

Each dish was judged on taste, presentation, creativity, local ingredients and USDA ingredients. No meats, home-processed foods or nuts were allowed.

Potsdam Central School Superintendent Patrick H. Brady was a member of one of the judging panels for the middle school competition.

“It’s an excellent opportunity for students to learn about healthy foods,” he said. “So far, it’s been very tasty.”

Peru Central School’s Peru Blue team of four eighth-grade boys took home first prize in the middle school competition for their “fiery north country chili” with homemade tortilla chips.

“I was kind of nervous because we competed last year, but didn’t even get the honorable mention,” said Steven G. Mills, a team member.

The four boys agreed that although the homemade tortillas were the hardest part to cook, they were the key factor in bringing home first prize.

The team leader, Jim D. Testo, a teacher at Peru Central School, was proud of his students for winning the top honor at the cook-off.

“I feel a moral and ethical obligation to bring health awareness to kids,” he said. “The kids want healthy food to eat and cook, but they need more awareness of it brought into their lives.”

The Top Cats, a team from Northern Adirondack High School, won first place in the high school competition for its “NACH your average enchilada” recipe.

All of the recipes made during both competitions will be posted online at ncjrironchef.org within the next two weeks.

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