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Chopped - Lunch Ladies Rule!

Not since the episode(s) with Madison Cowan has there been a finer, more emotional episode of Chopped.

These ladies were lovely! And ultratex? You gotta give that lady major props for thinking of that. Sweet.

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  1. As a former K-12 Director of Food Service for a very large school district, I can only say major kudos to Food Network and the 4 school lunch ladies. It's easy for people who have never been involved in the program to bash and vilifile it as the foundation of all that is wrong with eating habits in America. It was refreshing - for a change - to see school lunch employees presented as human beings who care about the kids. These women see on a daily basis the 25% of America's children that are hungry. The school lunch program was never designed, nor intended to become a safety net for food starved families.

    And, yes, this is a very emotional episode. I don't think there was a dry eye on the set and I know there wasn't in my house either. It will repeat several times this week - http://www.foodnetwork.com/chopped/cl...

    2 Replies
      1. re: DiningDiva

        This is must see t.v. I was a crying mess at the end and humbled by the attitudes of these remarkable women, and what they are doing to make our world a better place.

        Everyone should watch this episode.

      2. A bit too sappy were for me.

        Plus, I found the overt pushing of the new government's food pyramid (or chart) to be off-putting. Half the show felt like a Public Service Announcement on behalf of the Obama Administration. An early re-election campaign spot, almost.

        How does the White House Chef judge square these two statements:

        - 1 out of 4 children go hungry
        - obesity amongst our children is a major problem

        5 Replies
        1. re: ipsedixit

          Shame you couldn't see past that to see the measure of these fine women.

          1. re: ipsedixit

            The old food pyramid was not user friendly and most consumers didn't understand it and - for whatever reason - were not willing to take much time to educate themselves about it. I have no problem with FTV pushing the new one with a 15 sec. visual if it helped veiwers understand what should ideally be on their plate.

            The food policies in the U.S. are a disgrace. Children are NOT, repeat, NOT the focus of the Child Nutrition programs, which are overly regulated and provide substantial financial gains for already large business. I'm all for business being able to make a profit to sustain itself. I'm not for that being done at the of taxpayers and end users.

            Hunger and obesity are not necessarily mutually exclusive concepts. The most affordable food in the U.S. these days also tends to be the most (over) processed food. It provides calories but not always very much in the way of viable nutrition. If you're hungry, you're going to eat what you can afford or find. Processed goods do tend to fill you up (and out) in a way that whole foods don't. Over time that adds up to a lot of calories and a lot of pounds. A package of cheap pasta that can be purchased for $.89 goes a lot further towards feeding and filling up a family than does a pound of hamburger at $1.69 (or more). Couple that with low activity levels that are a by-product of excessive time spent in front of a TV or computer screen and kids can really pile on the pounds.

            But there are other factors too. The 60s liberated women in many ways, including freeing them from KP. Women entered the work force in droves, the 2-income family took off, but most importantly, our eating habits began to change and our cooking skills began to decline. We are now in to the 3rd generation of people that really don't understand where food comes from or how to handle and cook it. The 60s also saw the rise of processed food, which none of us thought was a bad thing because, well, frankly, because it tasted good. And, I think it needs to be noted, the Child Nutrition programs have no built-in nutrition education component to them. Yeah, they'll hand out the food, but they don't particularly tell you how to use what you get, or explain why some foods are better than others.

            USDA commodities are not inherently bad. But schools no longer have food service employees with any kind of culinary skill level, nor could they afford to employee them if they did. Most (but not all) school lunch employees work less than a 4 hour day so that their school district does not have to pay them benefits of any kind, simply an hourly wage that is usually right around minimum wage. I'm glad that the show featured some ladies that do have cooking skills and are using them to try and improve the lunches they serve. And they're doing it on about $1.25/lunch per day. What would you serve, but more importantly, how would you manage to do it so it didn't infringe on the district's general fund.

            Last week the House of Representative Republicans blocked a proposed overhaul of the school lunch program that was designed to reduce childhood obesity by increasing the fruits and vegetables served and decreasing the reliance on french fries and pizza. The school lunch program is an $11 billion program and these would have been the first changes to it in 15 years. The changes that the USDA proposed would have cost $6.8 billion over the course of 5 years, which is not an insubstantial amount to tax payers. House GOP called the changes "overly burdensome and costly regulations" that restricted the freedom of local school districts to plan their own menus. Huh? Since when is feeding kids burdensome? And restricting school districts from planning their own menus? Please, the USDA has fairly rigid requirments for menu planning with which a district must complian if it wants to remain eligible for meal reimbursements. By rejecting the changes, it means that the system of counting the tomato paste concentrate on a slice of piece pizza as a 1/4 cup serving of vegetables remains in place, which is not in the best interest of most children.

            The politics of food is well protected and insulated in Washington D.C. and doesn't particularly have the consumer or end users best interests in mind. So, I'll take a sappy look at a real problem any day over the calculating and self-serving interests of politicans looking for the next kick-back or re-election.

            1. re: DiningDiva

              Thank you DiningDiva for your wise discourse on the issues highlighted by the Chopped Episode!
              I was also truly moved by the dedication and care of these 'lunch ladies' and agree with the chopped judges they should get their titles elevated to Chef at their schools. Not all Schools have such a person at the kitchen helm, but these ladies were a wonder and a joy.
              I also truly appreciated their support of EACH OTHER in the competition, and how excited they were to simply be there to have the experience.
              Bravo to Food Network and Chopped for a - perhaps slightly sappy - but very effective episode.
              A well done hour PSA bringing attention to a very real problem that 25% of our kids - in the worlds richest country - are hungry every day.

              1. re: DiningDiva

                A fine point on the recent congressional action. The so called pizza clause was added at the last minute by a committee resolving differences between the House and Senate versions, and final product was approved by both houses. And the voting profile on the resolution was similar to the original votes. In the House this was largely on party lines, in the Senate nearly all Democrats approved it as did a third of the Republicans. HR2112 was past due, since the funding it provides covers Sept 2011 to 2012. So this addition is more a result of last minute horse trading and lobbying by industry sources than a vote along party lines. This pizza rule has garnered most attention from the press (and child health lobbying groups), but I suspect that in the larger scope of things, it is a minor component of HR2112. While the House Appropriations Committee chair trumpets the cost savings of this provision (probably overblown), the Senate chair stresses the compromises that had to be made.

                1. re: paulj

                  And that, Paulj, is exactly the problem with child nutrition programs (and probably many other federally funded programs) in order to get the votes to pass something there is too much negotiation on both sides of the aisle to ensure passage. Unfortunately, by the time bills pass they've been modified, gutted, amended and god knows what else so that they don't resemble what was originally intended.

                  Congress can find billions to support the purchase of military paraphenalia, prisons, outdated fossil fuels, bridges to nowhere and projects that support small sections of the country/population, but it can't find a billion for 5 years to begin to improve what we feed kids?!?!??? Do we as a country really value our children that little?

                  Catsup was never a vegetable, in spite of Ronald Regan's best efforts ;-). And school lunch pizza really isn't as awful as it sounds, or, as bad as a piece of pizza purchased someplace else. That piece of pizza is going to contain at least 4 USDA commodities - flour, tomato paste, cheese (mozzarella and/or cheddar) and pork/turkey/beef in the form of pepperoni or sausage crumbles. The flour will be enriched, and the cheese lo-fat. The entire slice will provide at least 2 ounces of protein between the cheese and meat, a 1/4 cup of tomato, and 1 ounce of whole grain, and it will come in at around $.20/portion. Couple that with a tossed salad or carrot/celery stick, a low or non-fat milk and an apple and the lunch will come in below 30% of calories from fat and provide a fairly decent lunch from the nutrition standpoint. The problem is that most kids won't eat the tossed salad or veggie sticks (even with Ranch dressing as an incentive), drink about half the milk, and maybe nibble at the apple if it's in wedges and they aren't loosing teeth. They will, however, usually eat the entire piece of pizza because they're very familiar with it and may be eating it routinely at home.

            2. It was truly refreshing to watch four women cheer for each other and not snipe about each other during the solo comments to the camera. They could teach other contestants a lot about winning and losng graciously.

              2 Replies
              1. re: Brad Ballinger

                The difference in tone between this episode and other Chopped ones has as much to do with choices by the producers and editors, as it does in the manners of the contestants. These ladies may well be less competitive than the executive chefs they usually get, but that does mean that the others are always mean spirited. Editing makes a difference in the tenor of any show.

                1. re: paulj

                  I'll give you that, to a point. Although directors, producers, and editors contribute to the final product, it still boils down to what they're given to work with.

              2. I noticed that 2 of the women were from CT, which was pretty cool to see. I wish that I'd had one of these ladies working in the cafeteria at my school! Although I do count myself lucky, my school cafeteria had a deli counter where we could get grinders w/ all kinds of veggies, a salad station with all kinds of veggie and pasta salads. Bagels, soups, milk, and juices were always an option, and the fried foods were quite limited. There were NO sodas, and I don't' even remember sweets...

                2 Replies
                1. re: kubasd23

                  Just as an aside, Yankee manager Joe Girardi makes sure there isn't any ice cream or soda in the Yankee clubhouse ever. I guess he understands that no good could come from either one of them.

                  1. re: Cheese Boy

                    ha, that just brings to mind fried chicken and beer in the red sox dugout.... I'm a diehard red sox fan, though

                2. I did not see the Lunch Ladies episode so I cannot compare it with the Chef Madison Cowan episodes.... but did it top the Chopped Redemption show with Chef Lance Nitahara? THAT was memorable...

                  10 Replies
                  1. re: ahack

                    You gotta love both Lance and Madison. Boy did Lance ever prove what a generous human being he is on that redemption episode. I would say the lunch ladies had an equal emotional pull. To me anyway.

                    BTW, today the lunch lady winner, who is from Connecticut, was on local TV. She got a HUGE ovation and reception at the school where she cooks. Well deserved!

                    1. re: TrishUntrapped

                      Awesome. I'll have to look for it. I didn't want to suggest that one episode is necessarily better than another or "the best"; we can enjoy the all of the ones that elevate our emotions beyond what we expect in a cooking show. They should have a Viewer's Choice week where they show the best episodes...

                    2. re: ahack

                      Thanks for bringing up Lance, he was one of my all time favorite competitors on Chopped and his episode with Madison one of the best of any season. Not only did he have tremendous cooking skills, but he clearly didn't just give lip service to his beliefs and values, he lived them in the redemption show.

                      The lunch lady episode is, of course, different, but it's on the same wave-length as the redemption show. Not so much as a "feel good" thing but because both so clearly demonstrate there is more to the dynamics of food than ego and skill...heart still counts for many things and in many ways.

                      1. re: DiningDiva

                        one of my favorite episodes was with the Japanese guy who ran a church camp of some kind (I might be making that up, but it was something like that), and the woman from France. She slipped and had boiling water pour all over herself, as well as the potatoes she'd been cooking. She kept on cooking. She said she would use the money to go visit her grandmother in France before she died. When the guy won, he said that he wasn't losing anything by giving her the money because he didn't expect to have it, and he told her to go visit her grandmother. There was not a dry eye in the house, and not in mine either. Truly amazing

                        1. re: kubasd23

                          That was Lance. It was the best episode, imo, and incredibly touching,

                          I think Food Network should come up w/ a nice cash prize for all the lunch ladies. I hope they do.

                          1. re: chowser

                            They sort of did. All four of the women who competed were given a 5-day cooking class at the Culinary Institute of Amer. The CIA runs a boot camp of sorts and my guess is this is the prize they got. I've looked at those boot camp classes and thought they looked pretty good. The kind of training they'll get in the classes will be invaluable to their school operations and moving them to new levels.

                            1. re: DiningDiva

                              Nice prize. I was thinking they must be paid pretty close to minimum wage so a bonus would be great. Didn't one of the women go to the CIA? I thought the one who used the molecular gastronomy had? I need to check out the bootcamp classes at the CIA. That would be fun.

                              1. re: chowser

                                The lunch lady chef who used molecular gastronomy said she had learned about it by watching Chopped!

                          2. re: kubasd23

                            I loved that gesture, and this lunch ladies episode was also touching. I found it amazing when one of the school chefs said they were not permitted in the teachers lounge, how disgraceful.

                            1. re: smartie

                              Really? i missed that part, terrible...

                      2. I liked the episode too!! Very touching - especially the part where the one who won had a backpack program so the kids could eat over the weekend. And she had Pasta Mondays so the kids would have a good meal since most don't get to eat over the weekend.

                        1. Thanks for posting this! I haven't seen this episode but have it recorded so will now make sure to watch it.

                          There are many "lunch ladies" who are unsung heroes and who do amazing things with their school lunch programs.

                          My daughter is fortunate to have a great lunch program at her school. While I would like to take credit for my daughter being an adventurous eater, fact is that Mrs. Brown, the head lunch lady, is so inventive with the way she prepares school lunches that my daughter has tried and loved virtually everything on the menu. (And yes, there is much more than just corn dogs and chicken nuggets.)

                          Can't wait to see this episode!

                          1. It was a wonderful episode and I also had tears in my eyes.

                            1. I loved this episode. It was so unlike any other episode of Chopped I'd ever seen. It put the "REAL" back into reality TV.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: CindyJ

                                yes, I would like to see more like this on occasion (I'm always rooting for the under dog on these shows and whoa here was a whole bank of them!)

                              2. For me, it got to the point where I thought that they were over praising and fawning too much over every dish that it almost seemed patronizing.

                                3 Replies
                                1. re: dmjordan

                                  That's one way of looking at it. I saw it more as an acknowledgement of their backgrounds, experience and culinary skill levels.

                                  1. re: dmjordan

                                    I can see how one could think that. But...having worked with lunch ladies for nearly 15 years in the last centuyr, I can tell you very few of them have the cooking skilled demonstrated by the ladies that competed on Chopped. So I think kudos are in order for the few that do and are trying to use those skills to make a difference.

                                    Lunch ladies are much maligned (and sometimes with reason) so for these 4 women to go on a show such as Chopped and display what they can do - risking stereotype and ridicule - it was probably a pretty brave thing. Their dishes weren't perfect by any stretch of the imaginatiobn, but it demonstrated to the audience that school lunch women can be capable of doing much more than simply opening cans, reheating chicken nuggets and serving fries with everything.

                                    I got the impression that this show was more about highlighting the positive aspects of school lunch rather than the guerilla tactics Jaime Oliver has used. Most people on this thread had a fairly positive reaction to the women on the show, yet when Jaime Oliver's Food Revolution ran their series on the West Virgina school, the women in the lunch program were protrayed as only there for the job, rigid, overly reliant on the rules and that serving kids was the last thing on their agenda. Same school lunch program - two different approaches. As burdensome as the USDA rules and regs are for Child Nutrition programs, for me the 4 women that competed on Chopped demonstrated that it is still possible to show some creativity while still complying with the rules and regs. It's easy and economical to take the frozen and reheat path, less so to do a lot of scratch cooking with USDA Commdities that are often not exactly user or cook friendly, or already processed to death.

                                    1. re: DiningDiva

                                      Well said DiningDiva. Just finished watching the show and it was an hour well spent. The camaraderie was an element sorely missing in most of these type shows. I was really happy that all the ladies were given the additional prize of the CIA cooking classes.

                                      I'd love to see a follow-up in a few months to see their progress and that of their lunch programs.

                                  2. Saw this episode and enjoyed it. Wondering if future episodes will include chefs competing from soup kitchens, firehouses, the armed forces, etc. I ask because it seems like FN is reaching out (further) and rethinking who can REALLY use the ten grand.

                                    3 Replies
                                    1. re: Cheese Boy

                                      firefighters and armed forces cooks, and to a lesser extent, lunch ladies, are all paid better than line cooks and nearly all restaurant chefs and sous chefs. they also get pensions, and enjoy other benefits, health care, etc which most chefs do not.

                                      1. re: soupkitten

                                        Definitely agree. Cooking is a labor of love -- sometimes even thankless.

                                        1. re: Cheese Boy

                                          oh, okay i think i get it... i was reading your post as that restaurant cooks must make a lot of money or something, so they don't really *need* $10k, and better to give it to someone (else) who "can REALLY use" the money---- when, what you meant, was that cooks in general, whether in restaurants or in school lunch or hospital caf or the mess hall, generally do this work for poor compensation. that is what you meant by "FN reaching out (further)." if that is what you meant, than i agree! i also think that a lot of the work that the unglamorous institutional cooks do is very interesting and takes real ingenuity and a great deal of intelligence and persistence to make real change. i met a really cool "lunch lady" through the chefs move to schools program, and i think she's amazing!

                                    2. My daughter and I happened to catch the rerun of that Chopped episode last night. Although I'm not a "Chopped" fan, I was crying like a hungry baby at the end of that show. Both of us went through quite a bit of tissues!
                                      That said, Food Network, if the powers that be, had any brains, they would have a cooking show with these Lunch Ladies. I would rather see these wonderful women who really have a need to feed our children on TV rather than the Neelys, or Pauler, or Aunt Sandy. Food Network needs a revamp and a show with these women would be a welcome change. That was one of the best TV episodes I've ever seen in my life..it just tugged at my heart!

                                      5 Replies
                                        1. re: TrishUntrapped

                                          TrishUntrapped--Right??? I'll tell you if those lunch ladies had their own show, it could be the redemption of the food network. I loved those ladies:)

                                          1. re: jarona

                                            Sadly, if they did this, they would no longer be Lunch Ladies, but the standard FN reality "personalities," replete with bleached teeth, hair extensions, mega-makeup, and bejeweled/low cleveage clothing.

                                            1. re: pine time

                                              You know--even though I would love to see those Lunch Ladies on a show--your exact thought crossed my mind. FN would turn those beautiful women into characatures of themselves--just like Pauler. If they could keep it real, it would be great--unfortunately, you're correct. FN would have a lunch lady makeover. Sad.

                                        2. re: jarona

                                          They could easily avoid creating another FN 'personality' by never using the same people more than twice. Rather than giving fame to one person, how about giving it to all of them? These lunch ladies illustrated a very important point--they are looked down upon by the teachers and not allowed in the teacher's lounge--why would kids think highly of their food providers if their own teachers refuse to associate with them?

                                          I loved seeing real everyday people, not people looking for fame or accolades. The lunch ladies sure seemed like they were there to show there's pride in what they do and open people's eyes to how important their role is and that they don't all sling spoonfulls of reheated glop onto food trays and glower at children.

                                          So I'd really love to see more of this, real reality. I enjoy some FN personalities, but get very bored seeing the same people in marathon reruns for years on end. It's why I enjoy Diners Driveins and Dives so much--the real cooks, owners, and patrons and their passion for their local food--not to hear "Winner winner chicken dinner" x1,000,000.

                                        3. I have to admit I balled like a fool too.
                                          Fell hard for those lady's.

                                          1 Reply
                                          1. I've watched most every chopped episode aired over the last two years (or so). I was super impressed with the lunch ladies of this episode. They were classy, talented women. They were supportive of each other, and embraced each challenge with grace and elan. These women are a far cry from the unfair and much maligned stereotypical lunch lady. With millions of children relying on these women for their daily nutrition, these women deserve our support and encouragement. Brava to the contestants and brava to Food Network for moving beyond the typical chopped fare.