9-year-old Raya El-Hajar had an exciting summer. She won the 2016 Healthy Lunchtime Challenge. Then, First Lady Michelle Obama welcomed Raya and 55 fellow chefs from around the country to the White House last month to celebrate their achievements.
The 5th annual challenge was designed to encourage 8 to 12 year olds to create an original, healthy, tasty and affordable lunch recipe. More than 1200 applications flowed in for review.
Raya El-Hajar demonstrates how she assembles her award-winning dish – Wisconsin Cranberry Chickpea Salad.
“We grew up eating it, just the garbanzo, parsley and lemon. And then to give it a little twist sort of, I added the cranberries and the feta to make it sort of from Wisconsin. And the peppers too,” Raya says.
Raya adds olive oil and salt. She says neither her mom or her need to measure. Her recipe does not include pepper. “It doesn’t really match,” she explains.
Raya is being assisted by her mom Marcia Mihwadi. Mihwadi cherishes time in the kitchen with all three of her kids. It’s not something she experienced during her own childhood.
“My mom didn’t know how to prepare very many things and she worked two or three jobs, so she didn’t have time. So it was fast food, prepared food, processed food, so I didn’t know. So as an adult I’ve had to do a lot of self-teaching to figure out how to do this,” Mihwadi adds, “It’s not hard, as I’ve learned.”
On July 14th, Mihwadi was able to experience the Healthy Lunchtime Challenge at a White House “state dinner” her daughter.
Raya describes the President’s residence as “cool, it’s sort of like a palace.”
They sampled some of the recipes from her fellow rewardees. Raya says she ate it all. “Because it was good. My favorite was a watermelon salad with edamame and a spring roll. It was my favorite,” Raya says.
Raya narrowly missed out on another chance – she did not quite get to have a nice long chat with First Lady Michelle Obama. “Michelle no! But if we only had been at a different table, we could have sat next to her,” Raya laments.
But she did get her photo taken with the First Lady.
The experience was more than photo ops and food, Michelle Obama sent her future fine chefs off with a mission. “She challenged us to go back to our state and to do something about eating healthy,” Raya says.
Her grandfather thought she should reach out to Wisconsin cranberry growers and cheese makers to become their spokesperson.
"My idea is to improve school lunches,” Raya says. The current fare, she says, leaves plenty of room for improvement. “Let’s see corn dogs, unidentifiable chicken...,” she says.
Now the culinary critic really warms to her subject – it is, Raya says in so many words, a matter of both food and educational equity.
“It’s not fair because the kids parents don’t have time or money to make a lunch; then their kids don’t get nutrients from lunch, which means they don’t get good grades, which means they don’t like school, because they’re not doing good at it and the teachers have a hard time dealing with the students too,” Raya reasons.
As a 4th grader, she plans to take on the system – while juggling all of her other commitments.
And Raya doesn’t think she’ll have to wait for Michelle Obama to check up on her progress. “Well she’ll be next door,” Raya exclaims. She fully expects the Obamas to live nearby in Illinois in the near future. “I’ll go to her house and we’ll bake cookies," Raya adds, "healthy cookies."