When a semi-shy, 10-year-old rocking (and I do mean rocking) leopard print cowgirl boots hands you a vibrant and colorful plate of food, it's hard not to feel encouraged, and thankful. This is a powerful reflection of a food climate shifting.

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of attending Greenville, South Carolina's 10th annual Euphoria festival. The weekend is a multifaceted celebration of building community through food, appreciating and protecting the integrity of ingredients, and pushing creative bounds in the culinary arts. Spanning Thursday through Sunday, the event features local and national talent providing prolific cooking demonstrations, tastings, wine seminars, live musical performances, and elaborate dinners. Among this year's participating attendees were Michelin Star chefs Curtis Duffy of Grace in Chicago, David Kinch of Manresa in Los Gatos, and Sean Gray of NYC's Momofuku Ko.

After preparing a show-stopper, 7-course dinner--unloading dishes like Scallops with Romaine Marmalade, White Poppy Juice, & Nasturtium, Confit of Sun Jewel Melon & Lettuces with Green Curry, and Rack of Lamb with Roasted Kale & Lacto Fermented Huckleberry Juice--at the scenic Hotel Domestique on Saturday evening, these acclaimed masters of their craft traded their exec toques to serve as sous chefs for talented budding cooks the following morning at Euphoria's first ever Healthy Lunchtime Throwdown.

Sunday's cook-off was the culmination of a recipe contest across Greenville County School schools during which students, ages 8 to 12, were prompted to submit their own healthy lunch recipes. Four students were selected as finalists to go head-to-head live, on stage for the crowds of Euphoria with Duffy, Kinch, and Gray at their command. And let me tell you--y'all, this was an impressive showing.

I was honored to represent Cooking Light on the judging panel alongside award-winning journalist and creator of the Healthy Lunchtime Challenge and  Kids' "State Dinner,"  Tanya Steel, 2 Greenville-based past winners of the Healthy Lunchtime Challenge, and Sally Wills, Executive Director of LiveWell Greenville. I think I can speak for the entire panel when I say that the kid competitors' imagination, finesse, and frankly, their poise under pressure was nothing short of wow-worthy.

Carly (age 10) delivered a vibrant vegan hummus wrap that was not only delicious, but very thoughtfully constructed with a great balance of protein, fresh veggies, and whole grain. It's the kind of lunch we all need for powering through especially lengthy afternoons.

Cannon (age 11) whipped up an egg white omelet with speed and tact. Very honestly, it was one of the more flavorful and texturally delightful egg white omelets I've ever had. Filled with spinach, turkey, and low-fat cheddar, this dish, titled "Popeye's Omelet," is a rich protein bomb that is totally tasty, yet approachable.

Fionna (age 10) crafted a pasta e fagioli with such an impressive depth of flavor. It was fresh, it was saucy, it was wholly comforting. I loved the defined, but delicate, celery presence. Overall--a traditional choice well executed.

But ultimately, Sarah (age 10) of self-proclaimed "Team Cooking Kittens" ( I think she's my spirit animal) claimed victory with her Rainbow Creole. Sara demonstrated numerous pro-qualities with her plate: the dish was beyond fresh with bright vegetables cooked to perfection so as to emphasize their inherent flavor and crisp texture, she created distinguished and delicious flavor layers, she incorporated just the right amount of heat in the flavor profile, she deployed coconut oil as her cooking fat (very trendy), she served her dish with a side fruit salad just to balance it out, and like I said--her boots and her earnest energy we're absolutely awesome.

Real talk, the energy and passion for creating wholesome meals that was displayed in the Healthy Lunchtime Throwdown competition--and the energy and passion that surrounded the entire weekend, for that matter--was an inspiration. I can't imagine a better way to secure a better food future than teaching the wee ones the value of food, the work that goes into growing and preparing it, and encouraging the creativity and joy that goes into making a meal for loved ones.

Watch an interview with this year's winner of Greenville's Healthy Lunchtime Throwdown, Sarah Walker. Her recipe for Rainbow Creole will be incorporated into all of the cafeteria menus throughout Greenville County.

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