Changing School Food Changed My Life

Danielle Staunton competed in our inaugural Real School Food Challenge last year which inspired her to come work for the Foundation. 

  • Chef Ann News
  • May 17, 2017
  • By: Danielle Staunton
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I have always been a healthy eater — lots of leafy greens, limited meats with high amounts of saturated fat, sugar in moderation (except for my annual chocolate, caramel, and sea salt Whole Foods birthday cake which I eat straight from the box). When my son was born, I made all his food from fresh vegetables. When he got a little bigger, I baked super food muffins with quinoa, kale, and puréed white beans as a butter substitute.

So when I decided to compete in the Real School Food Challenge about a year ago, I thought I had it in the bag. I was working for a catering company and I spent so many hours in the kitchen making healthy meals, how hard could it really be?

What is the Real School Food Challenge?

In 2016, the Chef Ann Foundation created the Real School Food Challenge to educate people and communities about what it takes to create a healthy meal that meets stringent regulations for a measly $1.25.

The experience was intense. Lots of rules, little money, and somehow it must still be a crowd pleaser. I changed my concept at least 3 times (for those who know me well, you know that is one of my quicker decisions). The final recipe was then revised to meet the USDA requirements and substitutions were made to stay within budget.

Everyone loved my “breakfast for lunch” egg muffins in potato nests, with cream cheese and fresh strawberry-stuffed whole wheat French toast sticks…but clearly not enough. For a while I was quite bitter about losing. And then a year later, I find myself a winner.

I joined the Chef Ann Foundation team in December of 2016. Prior to the night of the inaugural Real School Food Challenge, I hadn’t given much thought to what my kids were eating at school. Mostly, I just thought it was awesome that I didn’t have to make lunch every morning. It made my life easier. But after my experience, I came to realize just how lucky I am to have Chef Ann Cooper working in Boulder, Colorado. She and her team make sure the students are eating fresh, real food every day and they actually cook that good food from scratch. And we're all lucky to have the Chef Ann Foundation to share Ann’s knowledge, resources and experience with the rest of the country.

When I joined the CAF team, I was blown away to learn that over 30 million children in this country eat school lunch every day, and even more astounding is the fact that 70% of them qualify for the free and reduced meal program. Unfortunately, the majority of schools across the country are still feeding children food “products” that come out of a package. Which begs the question:

How are children supposed to focus and learn in the classroom when their only source of fuel comes from chemicals and sugar?

As I have seen with my own children when they eat too much sugar, binge on pre-packaged snacks, or don’t get enough vitamins from fruits and vegetables, their behavior changes. For the worse.

Creating a school food recipe for the Real School Food Challenge was incredibly difficult, but it certainly wasn’t impossible. Our kids in Boulder are blessed to have Ann Cooper’s team making their school meals from scratch each day. There is incredible intention in the recipes they create to be sure our kids are not just eating healthy food now, but setting them up for a lifetime of well-developed palates and good eating habits. And if your child doesn’t happen to like what’s on the menu today, you are able to pack them a lunch of healthy, organic, allergen-free, hormone-free, gluten-free foods. Most kids in this country do not have that luxury. And that is why I have decided to pay it forward with my time, energy, and work. My mission is no longer just about my own family’s health, but that of the other 30 million children who are the future.

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