Agri Leader

Students showcase culinary skills in statewide cookoff

Motivating children to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables has been a top priority of Florida Agriculture Commission Adam H. Putnam ever since he took office.

Now, his staff has launched a campaign to inspire them to create recipes and cook.

Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) is conducting a Student Chef Cookoff competition for students from fourth to 12th grades, and a winner will be named in each of the five regions of the state.

Entrants must create a recipe that includes one fresh fruit or vegetable and submit a photo of their entry.

The recipe must include clear directions for preparation, provide four snack-size servings and allow for completion in 45 minutes or less. The recipe must also promote good nutrition and healthy eating habits.

Recipes will be judged on nutrition, presentation and appeal, and originality. Three qualifying round winners will be chosen per grade category, for a total of 45 finalist entries statewide. The grade categories are fourth and fifth grade, sixth through eighth, and ninth through 12th.

The qualifying round winners will be invited to cook their recipe for a panel of judges at a Publix Aprons Cooking School in their region.

Finalist rounds will be held Sept. 27 in Tampa for the central/west region, Oct. 11 in Tallahassee for the northwest region, Oct. 25 in Jacksonville for the northeast region, Nov. 1 in Miami for the south region, and Nov. 15 in Orlando for the central region.

Each regional cookoff will name a winner in each of the three grade categories. First-place winners will receive a $100 gift certificate, second-place winners a $75 gift certificate, and third-place winners a $50 gift certificate. All winners will also receive a free Publix Aprons Cooking School class and a $50 gift certificate to cover travel and ingredient expenses.

The high school winner in each region will be designated as its FDACS student chef ambassador.

The innovative initiative is intended to create excitement about food among school children, said Robin Safley, director of FDACS’s division of food, nutrition and wellness.

“Since we are, I think, the only state that has an official state chef for its agriculture department, we had been thinking for a couple of years that it would be wonderful to have regional student cookoff that could create a whole new level of excitement about fresh fruits and vegetables,” Safley said. “We also wanted to come up with yet another way to put more fresh foods into the system.”

That’s important, she said, because new rules from the U.S. Department of Agriculture require healthier food, such as whole grains, in the school nutrition program and national concern is growing about childhood obesity.

“So the cookoff is a way to tie in all of our other goals when it comes to children, Safley said. “It’s also another way to promote fresh Florida fruits and vegetables in our schools. And we know from various studies that children that are involved with food, either by growing it or cooking with it, have a tendency to be more exploratory and consume more different kinds of food. So we think that a chef cookoff for kids is just another way to interest children in food.”

Justin Timineri, FDACS’s official state chef, said: “Teaching children how to cook gives them a life skill that they will use in some form every day. We live in a complex food world where there are so many choices. Eating healthy is a choice, and in order to have our kids grow up healthy, we need to show them how to make those good choices. And Florida has such a vast array of fruit, vegetables and seafood that are naturally wholesome and delicious.”

Cooking is also a wonderful family activity, Timineri said. “It’s also important for parents to encourage healthy eating habits in their children and influence their food choices. We want all children to get excited about cooking healthy food. And learning hands-on is the best way to encourage those efforts. Learning how to cook and how to make smart food decisions is a recipe for success.”

The student chef competition can also interest children in careers such as chefs, Safley said. “We live in a state that has a wonderful culinary industry,” she said. “So to get to expose children to something they could end up becoming passionate about as a career is a great thing to do. And becoming a chef is a wonderful career choice.”

Eventually, Safley said, the student cookoff will evolve to name a statewide grand prize winner and publish a cookbook from submitted recipes.

Deadline for 2014 entries are Sept. 15. For more information, visit