- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 11, 2017

Chef Cathal Armstrong believes firmly that children will eat anything so long as the taste is there. From an early age, he says, sugar is all but ingrained in kids’ diets, but it’s a trend he believes can be abated.

“You put some sugar into a pizza sauce, and you got your kids hooked,” Mr. Armstrong told The Washington Times outside Hummingbird, his newly renovated restaurant in Alexandria, Virginia. “What I’ve been focusing on with my input into school lunches is proving that kids will eat anything as long as it tastes good.”

On Monday Mr. Armstrong will be one of the judges of the annual Cooking Up Change event in the District, a healthy cooking competition that challenges teams of high school students from around the country to create menu items that are both healthy and tasty. Their entries must meet strict USDA nutritional guidelines — and their budget cannot exceed $1 per meal. The winning teams’ recipes will then also be served in their school cafeterias.

The event will be held Monday at the U.S. Department of Education. It is the 10th year of the competition, and Mr. Armstrong has been involved for three of those iterations.

“When it started we were in the basement in a dark room with a few kids and parents,” Mr. Armstrong said. “There will be hundreds of people here [Monday]. It’s really exciting to see this [event] grow.”

When judging the teams’ entries, Mr. Armstrong said he looks for a combination of flavor and presentation.

“If food doesn’t taste good, kids won’t eat it regardless of how good it is for them,” he said. “And then the secondary thing is what it looks like. We definitely eat with our eyes first.”

Mr. Armstrong believes that a sea change is needed in the culture at large regarding how civic leaders and decision-makers look at the issue of healthy school lunches. It won’t change overnight — or on its own — but the chef says that even incremental steps in the right direction can see later dividends.

“We have to not think it’s an insurmountable battle and not try to pretend that we can’t constantly improve what we’re doing for our kids and the generation after them,” he said. “As a parent, I think the most important legacy is to leave your kids in a better place than you were in. And as leaders in the community, we should be focusing on doing the same thing.”

The schoolkids boast an innate sense of competition during Cooking Up Change, Mr. Armstrong said, but he believes this also shows their enthusiasm about cooking in general.

Perhaps, even, as a career.

“I remind them that the restaurant business is a tough field,” he said. “It’s long hours, it’s hard work, it’s not one guy screaming ‘bam!’ with his hair all made up,” he said of TV chef Emeril Lagasse, whom he professes to admire.

“It’s not a television show,” Mr. Armstrong said of his chosen profession.

All the same, Mr. Armstrong is proud that the youngsters who come to the District for Cooking Up Change recognize him as an expert in the culinary field.

“The culture of food since I’ve been in the restaurant business has changed so dramatically, and this is kind of emblematic of that,” Mr. Armstrong said. “The kids think that I’m something special.”

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