From Pa. to D.C.: Local boy makes good ...veggie soup

Posted: July 12, 2013

CHEERS TO Ganesh Selvakumar of Broomall!

His vegan recipe for Lentil-Spinach Soup and Mint Chutney earned him a trip to the White House this week as the Pennsylvania winner of the 2013 Healthy Lunchtime Challenge.

You may remember Michelle Obama's all-organic White House kitchen garden two months into President Obama's first term.

After a shot across the bow from disgruntled pesticide advocates, the first lady toned down the organic talk and put an emphasis instead on exercise with her 2010 launch, "Let's Move!"

But, with nudging from Epicurious editor in chief Tanya Steel, food is back on the table in the Healthy Lunchtime Challenge, a state-by-state contest where kids 8 to 12 years old submitted healthy recipes applying USDA "My Plate" guidelines and culminating in a White House "Kids State Dinner" Tuesday.

By phone, Ganesh, 9, reported being "very excited" to meet Mrs. Obama, as well as the president, who stopped in at the event.

The 54 winners (50 states plus the District of Columbia and three territories) sampled a handful of the recipes and got a tour of that infamous garden. Said Ganesh, "I was surprised at how big it is."

Ganesh told me that his recipe was an adaptation of a sauce his mother makes. He removed the coconut, boosted the lentils and added stuff like chilies and cumin seed.

As for the chutney, he explained in the cookbook that collects all the recipes: "Last summer, my mom and I planted a few mint plants in our garden. I loved to eat the fresh leaves. I don't want to waste those precious leaves and came up with a mint recipe" that would go with lentils.

His family is not vegetarian, Ganesh said, but they do a lot of plant-based eating. He noted that his older sister is "almost a vegetarian, but she eats seafood."

Remarkably, Ganesh was not alone in going 100 percent plant-based for his entry. Ten of this year's winning recipes were vegan; last year, the first year of the contest, there were eight.

We'll see if a trend emerges in 2014, but it's cheering to see this much healthful, animal-free menu-planning among young Americans.

Another reason for hope: These youngsters are learning a more balanced and fact-based view of nutrition than the "four food groups" my generation grew up with, when half of our "needed" food came from animals.

Since the USDA's 2011 introduction of the simplified MyPlate icon, replacing the "meat" portion with "protein," children and adults are getting a better sense of how food really works.

Granted, most of the 2013 White House winners contain meat and/or dairy, but they're often in smaller proportions than one would find in a previous era. Once the USDA drops the anachronism of pushing dairy as an across-the-board requirement, kids in challenges like these will be freer to create recipes without dutifully recommending that we drink milk or eat yogurt alongside.

Here's hoping the Healthy Lunchtime Challenge continues, spurring tasty, nutritious recipes.

Kudos to Epicurious and Michelle Obama - and to all the budding chefs like Ganesh Selvakumar, who reports that the first lady asked him if he plans to keep cooking and making recipes.

Indeed he does.

So the V for Veg takeaway from this week's big event might be phrased as a question: Can we make healthful plant-based meals as tasty and satisfying as any others?

Yes, we can!

Vance Lehmkuhl is a cartoonist, writer, musician and 12-year vegan.

"V for Veg" chronicles plant-based eating in and around Philadelphia. or @V4Veg on Twitter.

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