Chicago Chef Sarah Stegner Responds To Michelle Obama's Calls For Healthier Schools

As co-chef and co-owner of both Prairie Fire and Prairie Grass Café, two-time James Beard award-winner Sarah Stegner already has a lot on her plate, so to speak. But the busy chef finds time to make regular visits to Northbrook Junior High, where she schools students on how to select and prepare healthy foods.

Her mission is right in line with that of First Lady Michelle Obama – in fact, her “call to action” for chefs to partner with nearby schools came after Stegner had already begun working with Northbrook Junior High. Stegner has been visiting the school regularly for the past few years, educating them about how to choose healthy, sustainable foods. She’s also given them lessons on how to prepare meals that are not only delicious but also good for them.

Stegner utilizes videos, lectures and discussions to get the kids talking about healthy eating. Perhaps the most effective method, however, is giving them a real taste of what she’s teaching.

“I gave all of the students that ate in the cafeteria a sample of a crunchy vegetable slaw that was seasonal and used delicious products from local farms,” Stegner said. That got the students talking about healthy options while also getting them to try something new and different.

According to Stegner, the junior high students are more than willing to jump in and learn about where to find healthy foods and how to prepare them, especially in a way that makes it more appetizing to kids. Additionally, she said the school and the teachers have been “extremely supportive.”

But the learning doesn’t have to stop at school, Stegner said. She encourages parents to make healthy options available to their kids at all times. Her advice for families with little ones is to “put healthy food down low and say, ‘These are the things you don’t have to ask if you can have, you can eat them anytime you want—just go in and get it.’”

Another great way to incorporate these healthy practices at home is to start a garden, she said.

“The process of understanding where your food comes from and the involvement and pleasure that comes with having a garden is very important,” Stegner said.

With the Healthy Schools Campaign as well as Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Campaign, Stegner sees an opportunity to bring nutrition closer to home. “Instead of bad nutrition being a problem that was out there, it’s now personal and we can do something about it,” she explained.

Stegner hopes her work and the work of people like Michelle Obama will usher in a new generation which utilizes food in a positive manner.

“I really want to emphasize that healthy eating is about being part of a community," she said. "This is the community of caregivers and schools that come together to make decisions about what’s the right nutritional things for students to eat. It’s about chefs in a community that are sharing their information and knowledge, and farmers that are providing good and healthy local food, pulling it all together. It takes a community to make this all happen.”