“We were looking for flavor that would
appeal to and be popular with the student
population. We knew it had to meet the
nutrition guidelines—low salt, sugar and fat.
We also knew it had to be fairly easy and
quick to make. It couldn’t be labor-intensive,
or it wouldn’t work in school lunch programs.”
Mary Lair prepares to submit the
porcupine sliders for judging.
The winning porcupine sliders include brown
rice, lean ground turkey, dried cranberries
and spinach, with Worcestershire sauce and
crushed red pepper providing a kick of flavor.
The team joined other teams from
schools throughout the country from
Sept. 7 to Dec. 30, 2010, to develop a
nutritious, delicious recipe in one of the
three categories. Recipes were judged on
student involvement, nutrition, creativity and
originality, ease of use in schools and recipe
presentation. Fifteen finalists were chosen,
and judges visited those schools beginning
April 26. The three finalists were named
in June. The SECA team was joined at the
final cook-off by Joshua Cowell School,
Manteca, Calif., in the dark green and orange
vegetables category, and Ira B. Jones
Elementary School, Asheville, N.C., in the dry
beans and peas category.
Once the finalists were named, the SECA
team got to work, practicing the porcupine
sliders recipe over and over, the students
making the sliders and staff supporting
them. The kitchen team also figured out
who would do what during the cook-off—a
plan that was abandoned when Bolton saw
the kitchen layout and changed duties last-
minute. “We were like, OK, we can do this.
We can go with the flow,” Guthrie says. “The
recipe is easy to make, and each of us can
do any and all of the steps.”
She admits that the cook-off was intense,
however, and she, Lair and Popescu—
usually a relaxed, jovial trio—were a little
stressed. “We were very serious during the
competition, with the exception of Chef
Todd. He kept his cool and didn’t get ruffled.”
Guthrie says the support the team
received from the school community and
the community at large was incredible.
During the Most Popular get-out-the-vote
drive, when recipes were being judged
nationally, students, staff and community
supporters made flyers, asked people to
vote and posted their support on Facebook.
The district’s communications staff
arranged appearances on local cable TV
shows, including one with the Minnesota
Department of Education commissioner.
Two Good Earth restaurants (part of
Parasole Restaurant Holdings) put the
sliders on their menus, with an insert
explaining the contest and asking people
to vote online.
Then, it was crunch time, as the three
finalist teams prepared to put their
recipes to the test in the cook-off. They
had 1 hour, 45 minutes, to prepare the
recipes for a panel of judges that included
Audrey Rowe, administrator for the USDA
Food and Nutrition Service, and Helen
Phillips, president of the School Nutrition
Association. Special guest Sam Kass,
assistant White House chef and senior
policy adviser for healthy food initiatives, was
on hand to cheer on the finalists and emcee
“There was a real sense of accomplishment,”
Guthrie says, when the cook-off was over
and the team was named the winner. “We
worked hard for a very long time, and it was
all worth it. We looked at how it all really
started, with a seed, and what grew from
that. We were determined and optimistic.”
But there was also a sense that the ultimate
prize could be elusive. When she asked her
students if they wanted to win, they said they
did, Guthrie says, but they were hesitant,
“They said, ‘Why us? Why would we win? We
are just this little alternative school.’ And I
said, why not us?
Left to right, Theresa Guthrie, Mary Lair
and Todd Bolton work in the kitchen
during the cook-off.
“Dreams can come true. You have to believe
in yourself. You need to make it your vision.
See it. Believe it. It was our vision.”