Almost 2 years ago I was one of over 800 chefs invited to the White House for “Chefs Move to Schools”, part of the “LetsMove“. This program is First Lady Michelle Obama’s initiative to help combat childhood obesity within a generation. (In my opinion, no matter your politics, first ladies do good work: teaching people how to read, Laura Bush and feeding kids, Michele Obama.)
It used to be that sit down meals were the norm, they certainly were when I was growing up. And, a low tech childhood encouraged activity. Mama would push us out the door and tell us to go play in the backyard. Many of today’s kids are tethered to TV or a game-boy. The exercise that used to be disguised as play is gone.
Let’s Move a great program but there is a lot of work to do, so it’s slow progress. Anything involving big change and government is no easy task. I’ve volunteered with the Atlanta chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier, Share our Strength, and the Atlanta Community Food Bank – but I had never actually gone to speak in a school. A few months ago I connected with Cindy Culver, Director of School Nutrition for Marietta City Schools. We met and she’s part of government and big change. I applaud her and the team in Marietta for making these changes.
On May 15, 2012, I visited Lockheed Elementary School (Marietta City Schools) in promotion of the School Nutrition Fresh Fruits and Vegetable Grant. I shared with the students the benefits of and preparation methods of various fruits, such as the more familiar fruits such as watermelon and banana, as well as papayas, honeydew melon. and horned melon. My audience was composed of over 300 children ranging from kindergarten to 2nd grade. They loved it when I chopped super fast with my largest knife. They all got to taste and sample freshly cut cantaloupe and grapes.
Between sessions we joined a group of about 250 children for lunch and I ate what they ate. Cindy explained that the majority of the kids eat free breakfast and lunch reimbursable by the government. The meal consisted of baked tortilla chips were topped with cheese sauce and ground beef in tomato sauce. First, I met the cafeteria staff and then I went around the tables to each child and talked to them about their plate and asked them to eat their grapes and mandarin oranges. A handful of the kids didn’t have any fruit on their plate, but when cajoled, the ones that had it did. Nutritionally, the meal was sound and I didn’t try to the apples, but frankly, it wasn’t that bad.
I met one little boy who didn’t have the prepared lunch but had brought in a box of Hawaiian Punch and a bag of mini-chocolate chip cookies for lunch. It nearly broke my heart. Another little girl was distraught to tears that there was no ice cream to purchase (ice cream and cookies were once for sale, but Cindy is ending this practice with the next school year.)
I’ve had a weight issue my whole life and put out a pretty raw post about it last year. I understand overweight. This not that simple. The other day I was stuck behind a bus in my mother’s neighborhood. I watched as each kid exited the bus. A lot of them were chubby. At Lockheed Elementary, I actually noticed there weren’t as many overweight or obese kids — but I was with the youngest ones. The news is filled with health professional’s concerns about obesity. There are dire and more dire observations – and predictions – about the health of our nation’s citizens.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
* 32% of kids aged 2-19 are overweight or obese
* 38% of Hispanic children are overweight or obese
* 36% of Black children are overweight or obese
* 29% of White children are overweight or obese
I’m very excited to have found a home with this initiative and look forward to more days with the children. We’re applying for a grant from ACF and I’m going to plan 2-3 consecutive days so that I can speak to the entire school.
Here’s a kid-friendly recipe I developed with my good friend Ruby who is 10. Some chefs insist on not mimicking junk food and staying away from the chicken fingers, pizza, and hot pockets. Me? I just want them to eat healthful, not processed food. This one fits the bill and passes muster with Ruby. I hope you enjoy it, too.
Bon Appétit, Y’all!
Ruby’s Peanut-Crusted Chicken Fingers
Serves 4 to 6
¼ cup coarse salt
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons dry mustard
1 teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon freshly ground white pepper, plus more to season
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 2½ pounds)
4 cups low fat buttermilk
2 cups whole-wheat fresh or panko (Japanese) breadcrumbs
1 cup finely chopped unsalted dry-roasted peanuts, almonds, or pecans
2 large eggs
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil, then set a large wire rack on the foil.
To make the brine, combine the salt, sugar, mustard, paprika, and ½ teaspoon white pepper in a large plastic or glass container. Add the buttermilk and stir until the salt is completely dissolved. Immerse the chicken breasts in the brine and marinate at room temperature for 30 minutes. (Do not brine any longer or the chicken will be too salty.)
Meanwhile, combine the breadcrumbs and nuts in a shallow dish. Season with white pepper. In a second shallow dish, whisk the eggs until they are loose, not ropey.
Working with 1 breast at a time, remove the chicken from the brine and shake off any excess liquid. Transfer to a plastic cutting board and, using a chef’s knife, cut the breasts on the diagonal into strips or fingers. (Yes, there is a reason I don’t cut them before I brine them; it makes them too salty.)
Dip the chicken into the egg mixture, coating both sides. Place the fingers in the breadcrumb mixture, sprinkle with crumbs to cover, and press so the coating adheres; turn the chicken over and repeat the process. Gently shake off any excess crumbs. Place the coated fingers on the rack set on the baking sheet. Bake until the chicken is golden brown and the juices run clear, 20 to 25 minutes. Remove from the rack and serve immediately.
Please be nice. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without permission is prohibited. Feel free to excerpt and link, just give credit where credit is due and send folks to my website, virginiawillis.com. Thanks so much.
photo credits: at Lockheed: Cindy Culver; Chicken Fingers: Helene Dujardin
Bon Appétit, Y’all © 2012