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Lunchbox February Hero: Chopped Champion Cheryl Barbara

In November of 2011, the Food Network aired a very special episode of one of its most beloved programs, Chopped. Chopped is like a mini Iron Chef competition. Four chef contestants compete to be the last one standing as they move through three meal courses – appetizer, main course, and dessert. Each course comes with surprise ingredients that the chef must include in the meal, and each course eliminates one contestant. It’s fast, it’s fun, and the November episode featured Lunch Ladies!

With the help of school food advocate and White House chef, Sam Kass, the four lunch ladies had extra challenges that regular Chopped contestants do not face. Their dishes not only had to include the surprise ingredients, but the judges were also looking for dishes that were healthy – and food that the kids would actually eat.

One lunch lady in particular stood out and in the end, became the winner of the Chopped “Class Acts” edition: Cheryl Barbara, head cook at High School in the Community in New Haven, Connecticut.

Cheryl Barbara is an amazing woman. She cares for her students so deeply that she goes to extreme lengths to ensure that her “kids” are well fed and well prepared to study hard and embrace life. She serves hearty pasta dishes on Mondays because she knows students are not always getting regular meals over the weekend and they are hungry when they return to school. Students know that Cheryl is always there for a much needed hug or loving words of advice. They “let their hair down” with Barbara and she strongly believes any problem can be solved over a dish of good food.

Cheryl became a lunch lady in 1988, following in her grandmother and aunts’ footsteps. She enjoys the work because she is able to become a part of her students’ lives. Right away she noticed that the lunchtime meals she was serving were the only nourishment some of her students would get that day. She says hunger was especially noticeable in her elementary school students who were not afraid to let her know they were not eating much at home. With Barbara’s older students, hunger was noticeable as students would miss school and get angry easily.

These signs of hunger inspired her to apply for the Feeding America Backpack Program with the help of New Haven Food Services Director, Tim Cipriano. Cheryl knows that hunger causes more than just health problems, it causes anger as well. There have been 34 murders in New Haven, Connecticut where Barbara lives, since the start of 2012 (as of the date of our interview) and Cheryl knows that feeding kids can make some of that anger go away. As she says, “Sometimes if your car doesn’t start in the morning, it can ruin your day. Imagine if you were consistently worried about where your next meal would come from? [Kids come to school hungry] and we expect them to function? They count on us every day… and I worry about them on school vacations and holidays. [But they know] that as long as Ms. Cheryl has a breath in her, they will receive lunch on the weekends [with the backpack program].”

Barbara loves to serve hearty meals to her students, and especially likes dishes that you can slip vegetables into! Her passion for cooking has spread in her school and she now teaches a weekly healthy cooking class. One of her students has even started cooking school at Johnson and Wales since taking her course! She always encourages her students to take a chance, and to get out of their comfort zone. She set the example by competing in Chopped, which was her way of taking a leap of faith!

She loved the Chopped experience because it allowed the world a glimpse into the hard yet rewarding work of lunch ladies. When she won, a group of her students stormed the studio to congratulate her and audiences got to see firsthand the love that Barbara brings to her world.

Cheryl Barbara talks a lot about love. Love for food, love for her students, love for her job. She believes that when lunch ladies truly love their students that they will not stop fighting for them for anything in the world.

For Cheryl, a great lunch lady, “opens their eyes, ears, and hearts to truly listen, look, and love.”

Her inspiring attitude and enthusiasm make her one of our Lunch Box Heroes as well as a hero to every life she touches in Connecticut.

If YOU know of a Lunch Box hero in your neck of the woods - let us know about it!


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