Is School Food Good Enough for Restaurants?

Find out what’s on the menu at RIS.

How do you get three acclaimed DC-area chefs to change school food? Easy, have them make it good enough to serve in their own restaurants. That’s exactly what chefs Jamie Leeds of JL Restaurant Group (Hank’s Oyster Bar, Hank’s Pasta Bar, The Twisted Horn), Ris Lacoste of Ris and David Guas of Bayou Bakery did during the national launch of The Real School Food Challenge, a school lunch recipe competition that aims to answer the question: What does it take to get fresh, scratch-cooked food on the lunch trays of millions of school children across America…for $1.25 a student?


Chef Ann Foundation Board Member Bonnie Moore with Chef Jamie Leeds of JL Restaurant Group and Ris Lacoste of RIS at The Real School Food Challenge.

Launched by the Chef Ann Foundation, founded by Chef Ann Cooper, The Real School Food Challenge has been peaking the interest of restaurant chefs and home cooks alike, prompting the kick-off on September 29 in Alexandria, Virginia. The challenge? Who can create the best school lunch recipe that meets the nutrition standards of the National School Lunch Program? The catch? The food cost must be at or under the average budget schools have to spend per lunch: a measly $1.25.

Despite the small budget, amazing creations came out of the kitchen. Leeds turned out a mouth-watering veggie packed macaroni and cheese, Lacoste a sophisticated crown of cauliflower on a bed of spaghetti squash, and Guas a soulful red beans and rice over collard greens. All under $1.25? “This was definitely a challenge,” commented Chef Guas, “and really opened my eyes to what schools are dealing with on a daily basis.”

David Guas of Bayou Bakery creates the “Big Salad” at Real Food For Kids’ Food Day 2014 at Mount Eagle Elementary School in Alexandria, Virginia

So were these dishes good enough for fine dining? Ris Lacoste thinks so. She’s already added her cauliflower and spaghetti squash creation to the menu at RIS.

The foundation also hosted a home cook version of the challenge in Boulder, Colorado on October 7, where Ann Cooper is Food Service Director for the Boulder Valley School District, serving 13,000 scratch-cooked meals each day. Christy Vaughan, Marketing and Communications Director for Banville Wine Merchants, the winner, commented that it wasn’t easy, but they all pulled it off. “I know schools can do it too.” The key takeaway for competitor Jim Moscou, co-founder of Spiffly digital platform, “is that schools need more money and support when it comes to feeding our kids.”


Christy Vaughan shows off her winning entry, Mediterranean Sliders

These are exactly the kinds of insights Chef Ann hoped the challenge would evoke. “Events like this, and this is the start of doing events all over the country, will help not only inform and educate people about the food we have in schools and how much it needs to change, but also understand what happens when you’re talking about making a complete meal for $1.25.”

Through the Real School Food Challenge, the foundation is calling on chefs, and good food advocates across the country to help them speed up change and bring attention to the school food issues our country faces. 30 million kids eat school lunch every day in America, and many schools continue to serve highly processed heat-and-serve food, a practice that reinforces bad eating habits that contributes to chronic health conditions like childhood obesity and other diet-related diseases.

chefannfoundation_60x54For more information on The Real School Food Challenge, including how to host and compete in these events, visit the Chef Ann Foundation website:


About Chef Ann Foundation

Founded in 2009 by Chef Ann Cooper, a pioneer in the fields of school food reform and child nutrition, Chef Ann Foundation is a national non-profit that provides school communities with tools, training, resources and funding to create healthier food and redefine lunchroom environments. To date, they’ve reached over 7,000 schools and 2.6 million children in all 50 states. To learn more about their healthy school food programming, visit


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