Foodlink welcomes Harley students for an ‘Allergy-Friendly Cooking Challenge’

Foodlink judges listen to Harley School students talk about their project before the Cooking Challenge taste test June 1 at Foodlink.


Here’s the thing about crazy ideas. 

Sometimes, they just might work. 

What started as an annual food drive by the students at The Harley School transformed into something much bigger in 2018. Jes Scannell Rooks, a Harley parent and Foodlink’s Director of Career Empowerment Initiatives, helped craft a new community service project — one that provided students with an “in-depth discussion about food, nutrition, hunger and recipe development … and a deeper understanding of Foodlink’s work in the community,” she said.

The focus of the project centered around how to devise tasty and healthy menu options for those inhibited by food allergies — a topic close to home for many fourth-graders at the school.

Foodlink staff visited with the fourth-graders multiple times to teach them about allergens and nutrition, and help them brainstorm allergy-friendly meals that would abide by Foodlink’s nutrition guidelines. They learned about various flavor combinations and tested meals in Harley’s new kitchen. The project culminated with a cooking competition and student-led presentations at Foodlink, where they also toured the Foodlink Community Kitchen and distribution center.

“One thing that struck me was seeing the kids grapple with the same issues that Foodlink’s Menu Innovation Committee struggles with consistently. It’s difficult enough to build a healthy meal, and it gets even harder when you have to avoid certain foods, work within a budget, or consider scaling the recipe up to make large batches,” said Margaret Liljedahl, Foodlink’s Nutrition Education Manager. 

On June 1, three groups of students prepared a different meal at Foodlink, and had to serve the meals, and give presentations about them, to a group of Foodlink judges. 

Gavin Shaw, who has food allergies himself, said the project allowed students to realize how fortunate many of them are, and gain a better understanding of the importance of food and nutrition. He was part of the team that worked on the “Josh Special” — named after Foodlink Eat Smart New York educator, Josh Wilcox, who helped with the project. 

After all of the meals were prepared and tested by six judges, including Foodlink Executive Chef Casey Holenbeck, the winners were announced. The group that prepared a delicious dish that included bow-tie pasta, broccoli and a cauliflower alfredo sauce earned the top prize. 

“Seeing the kids work through challenges was very impressive and the meals they created were delicious,” Liljedahl said. “It’s so exciting to see young people consider food in a new way and to work as a team to solve culinary problems. Lots of kids don’t get the chance to actually plan or cook meals, and today was a reminder that they can do a really great job, given the opportunity.”

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