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Blue Watermelon Project Contest Winners Shares Dish In Arizona Schools

Blue Watermelon Project (BWP), an Arizona non-profit organization that helps kids ‘rethink their relationship with food’ by having a curriculum that could be used in everyday life, setting up a pop-up for a taste test in April that will showcase the Feeding the Future January contest winner’s dish to their peers, which will allow them to show their work, reach the community, and get peer feedback. Shortly after this, the school will add the winning dish to the school lunch line.

Additionally, they are continuing to teach Arizona students culinary skills and how to plant produce that can be made into entrees through their Chef in the Garden kits that can be implemented in everyday curriculum, 501(c)(3) events, and campaigns that help support the program. In this article, I will discuss the follow-up events from Feeding the Future, the history of Blue Watermelon Project, what changes they are making to improve the future of this program, and how they are bringing the community together. 

“It is a great opportunity and they get to see that their hard work makes a difference, even if it’s just one time or a couple times. But if it gets into their school lunch program, I think that’s a really big thing that you are able to have a lot of pride about. That you created something that is going to be an option for students to be able to enjoy for their lunch,” said Founder and Board President of Blue Watermelon Project Charleen Badman.

Feeding the Future is an annual contest where 13 teams from elementary school, middle school, and high school design a school lunch tray or part of a lunch tray that follows the National School Lunch guidelines. Elementary and middle school students have options to create an afternoon snack, breakfast, or fruits and vegetables, while high school students have to create the entire tray while dealing with other factors such as the dollar amount. Additionally, BWP gives out scholarships to high school students who have participated in the contest that are sponsored by individuals and community partners such as Sprouts, Noble Bride, and Arizona Dairy Council. 

“It allows students to really have a touch point where they are able to see how difficult it is actually to produce a lunch tray and to grow from that experience and have much more respect for the people who are working in the food service department, in their school, and outside of that,” said Badman.

Winners from the contest will then be asked to share their winning dish with their peers in a cafeteria setting, whether that is handing out samples for students to review, having a food truck that is part of their lunch program that is outside of the cafeteria, or having it as a lunch line option. The Blue Watermelon Project views this as an opportunity for students to think beyond this contest and to show them the possibilities of their dish being in their school lunch program, which can include up to 3,000 students. 

Badman formed Blue Watermelon Project in 2016 after she was asked by the former Vice Principal Taylor Jones to help students in the Echo Canyon School in Scottsdale, Arizona, formerly known as Arcadia Neighborhood Learning Center, create dishes using the ingredients they had planted in their garden, and from participating in the James Beard Foundation advocacy program where they take chefs and help them open up with some advocacy training. She wanted to get more chefs involved and reach more schools with the Chef in the Garden experience. 

“It all just comes together as really a community that wants to help and support the work that we are doing,” said Badman. 

These Chef in the Garden dishes are crafted by volunteer chefs and allow them to introduce a variety of produce and their history to kids, share dishes from their culture or childhood, teach kids different culinary skills and abilities, and learn about planting and the growth cycle. It gives students ‘an opportunity to get them to be a little more open minded, to be a little bit more understanding to having ‘hey, I’ll try that,’ said Badman.  

Each Chef in the Garden lesson highlights a particular ingredient that is native to Arizona or grows really well in that region and it covers standards that the site representative has to cover in their everyday curriculum, such as measuring, fractions, ratios, percentages, social studies, and science standards. These site representatives may be a teacher, parent, counselor, volunteer, or part of PTO that helps navigate the program and provide the five lessons every other year. 

Teachers or site representatives receive a stipend to deliver the five lessons that are part of the Chef in the Garden program over the course of a school year. Within that program, teachers receive a kit where they get all the produce, kitchen equipment, and classroom lessons that attach to each lesson that they would need to be able to teach all the lessons. 

“Finding ways where we can not be one extra thing but instead incorporate into their curriculum. We’re not something extra on your plate, we are turning the plate into the curriculum,” said Program Director Jillian Sundberg. 

To keep this program running, BWP receives funding from many corporations, such as The Steele Foundation and Sprouts, who have supported them with the actual products that go inside the kits and are going to help them fund the Executive Director donations, whether they be personal or business. The Blue Watermelon Project has also received funding from hospitality and food professionals last year who believe in what they are doing and are trying to help Blue Watermelon Project grow. 

Additionally, Blue Watermelon Projects has campaigns that help them take care of certain parts  of the program that they need in order for it to be successful. For example, while working, they noticed that schools have different types of resources and in order to ensure that schools will be able to complete the recipes over the course of the year, one of Blue Watermelon Project’s chef volunteers, Tracy Dempsey, came up with the idea of a rummage sale.

“So when they are working on, for example, they’re making a salsa and they want to have a food processor or a blender, the school can check that equipment out to use for that recipe,” said Tracy Dempsey, a chef that volunteers for the Blue Watermelon Project. “That way the school isn’t having to use its own funds or not being able to do something because they don’t have access to the equipment. That’s how the funds are meant to be used as we are going to build a little equipment library.”

Now, the Blue Watermelon Project is finishing up the 2023 - 2024 school year by receiving new Chef in the Garden applications. Their goal is to increase the number of schools to 35 this year, and they are trying to work towards making sure that any school that enters will be able to participate in this program. They are starting with expanding to five schools within Northern Arizona with the help of the Program Director Jillian Sundberg. 

“If we want our future citizens and our students to be thinking about our world around them and solving the myriad of problems that exist, they have to connect to that world. This is just one opportunity where teachers can do that,” said Sundberg.

In conclusion, this Arizona based non-profit organization is continuing to spark conversations within the community when it comes to local procurement, outdoor education, and school gardens by reaching out to others who are willing to reach this goal. Also, Blue Watermelon Project continues to expand the kids knowledge and relationship with food by providing them with engaging and hands-on lessons from the Chef in the Garden program, challenge them to engage with others in the food industry with Feeding the Future, and bring the community together by having the kids share their work with their classmates and peers.

Image provided by Blue Watermelon Project

Edited By Shahnawaz Chodhry

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