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Healthy lunch lands local girl at White House dinner


Audrey Russells salmon fried rice wins her a seat at the national table

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Audrey Russell and her mother, Laura Russell, were invited to the Kids State Dinner at the White House, where they met President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, the first lady.

When Riverdale fifth-grader Audrey Russell returns to school in September, she may get more attention at lunch than she did last year.

Russell, who turned 10 in June, was the winner from Oregon in Epicurious’ Healthy Lunch Challenge, and as such was invited to attend a Kids’ State Dinner at the White House this summer. Her entry, salmon fried rice, took the prize among Oregon entrants. Winners from all 50 states and four territories were selected from more than 1,300 contestants.

Russell and her mother, gluten-free expert Laura Russell, spend a great deal of time in the kitchen, and when the contest was announced last spring they went right to work.

“We knew we wanted to make something with salmon because Oregon has great salmon,” said Audrey. “Fried rice seemed like a good way to use rice and vegetables, too. We had to follow the USDA My Plate rules.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines call for meals to consist of 25 percent lean protein, 25 percent whole grains and 50 percent fruits and vegetables. Now in its second year, the Healthy Lunch Challenge was created in concert with First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative and focuses on instilling healthy eating habits by getting kids cooking in their family kitchen.

Laura Russell said they tweaked their entry a few times; originally they made the dish with fresh ginger, which Audrey didn’t like, so they tried it again with garlic. She also switched out the vegetable, replacing asparagus with broccoli.

Entries were judged by a panel of judges that included Let’s Move! Executive Director and Assistant White House Chef Sam Kass, Epicurious Editor-in-chief Tanya Steel; representatives from the USDA and the Department of Education; two children who recently graduated from Share Our Strength’s Cooking Matters program; and D.C. Central Kitchen’s Michael F. Curtain Jr., whose organization prepared the food for tasting.

Upon arrival to the White House Kids’ State Dinner, hosted by Michelle Obama, the winners were announced as they entered the room, as is the tradition at State Dinners. The U.S. Marine Band played while the invitees strolled through historic rooms. Each guest was introduced to the first lady.

“She was amazing!” said Audrey. “We also got to meet the president. (Mrs. Obama) told all of us we could use our fingers to eat the spring rolls. Then the president said she never lets him use his fingers!”

Laura Russell said the president spoke “briefly with warmth and humor, and then took the time to walk around the room and chat with each and every one of us. He wasn’t rushed or hurried but seemed genuinely thrilled to be at the Kids’ State Dinner.”

“My mom and I sat between the winners from Mississippi and Texas,” said Audrey. “We had assigned seats with name cards written in calligraphy. I met some of the kids, but not all of them. We each got a cookbook with everyone’s recipes in them, and lots of kids used it as an autograph book.”

Many of the winning recipes were served at the banquet including zucchini corn bread, spring rolls, mini pizza with veggies on a cauliflower crust, vegetarian barley salad, Lucky Lettuce Cups and, for dessert, Taste of the Tropics fruit salad and Bodacious Bran Muffins.

Following the lunch, the group toured the White House gardens with the White House chefs.

Audrey said her favorite memory of the event was meeting the president and having her picture taken with Michelle Obama.

Asked if the experience would change what she packs in school lunches in the future, Audrey said she didn’t think so.

“I already eat pretty healthy things in my lunch like kale chips and Caprese salad.” It might cause her classmates to improve their eating habits, she said, “now that they know it might win them a trip to the White House!”

To learn more about the Healthy Lunch Challenge and to download the winning recipes, visit recipechallenge.epicurious.com.