"Who likes granola?" chef Michael Selig yelled to the auditorium crammed with Arkansas elementary students.
The children screamed, "Me, me, me!"
Selig smiled. That's what he wanted to hear from the students at Forest Park Elementary School in Little Rock, especially during the glutinous holiday season.
Selig and Stephen Burrow are chefs at Forty Two, the restaurant attached to the William J. Clinton Presidential Center. The pair has adopted former President Bill Clinton's mission on healthy eating in their restaurant, and want to spread that message to children.
"If we change just one or two kids from drinking so much soda or picking up carrots instead of chips, we've done something good," Selig said.
"The holidays are synonymous with overindulging on rich food. We don't want to take away the fun in eating during the holidays, but we want to teach kids to make healthy food choices," he added.
The visit was part of a program that the two chefs have presented in schools once a month in central Arkansas. But as word spread of the visits, demand grew around the state, and the pair is now booked through the end of the school year.
The idea for the visits emerged after a successful culinary day camp last summer at the Clinton Center in which students made nutritious lunches, started an onsite garden and hosted a reception for family members and guests to showcase their new cooking skills. Each student received a chef's jacket.
For the Clinton Foundation, the chef program is part of an ongoing effort to curb obesity. Nearly one in three children and teens in the United States is already overweight or obese, according to the foundation's statistics.
"Childhood obesity is one of our country's most pressing health issues, and the problem is even more prevalent in the South," said Stephanie S. Streett, executive director of the Clinton Foundation.
"The Clinton Center and Forty Two are proud to be a part of the ongoing solution by educating and, more importantly, empowering children to understand the importance of food and lifestyle choices."
BROCCOLI AND SAGE
These days, chefs are celebrities in children's eyes thanks to the Food Network and other cooking shows on television. When Selig asked the Forest Park students how many watched chef shows, nearly all raised their hands. The school hopes having chefs visit will help teachers reinforce good nutrition.
In their 45-minute presentation, Selig and Burrow show sage and broccoli plants to demonstrate the simplicity of urban gardening, and teach the basics of reading food labels so students can help their parents shop. Sodium and sugar are mentioned frequently.
"Think about a label like a table of contents," Selig said. "It breaks down what is in your food."
The students yelled out that sodium was bad and that organic food was good. When Selig would ask a question and a student would get the answer correct, he would throw them a black T-shirt with "Power is Knowledge" on the front.
Forest Park principal Theresa Courtney-Ketcher said the presentation supported a belief that better nutrition could help children think better. "Good nutrition also helps with positive emotions and attitudes," she said.
Courtney-Ketcher said she could tell when a student had not eaten breakfast or had eaten too much sugar.
Near the presentation's end, the chefs taught students an easy granola recipe that they could freeze and eat after school for a snack. Isabella Boyd, 10, volunteered to pass out granola to the students. She was giddy afterward about the program.
"I learned that salt is sodium and that calories are the energy in food," Boyd said. "I try to eat healthy but we're a busy family so we eat out a lot. But I'll probably make the granola."