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Beyond the recipe box: youth event showcases the power of teamwork, improvisation

The winning team cooks.

DECATUR, Ill. —  The Illinois 4-H Food Challenge had its first culminating statewide event on June 1, bringing together talented young chefs from across the state to showcase their culinary skills. This program is designed to help youth develop expertise in nutrition, healthy food preparation, food safety, communication, and teamwork through hands-on culinary experience.

Since its inception in 2015, the Illinois 4-H Food Challenge has seen participation from 4,955 youth. This year alone, 455 young culinary enthusiasts have participated in various local competitions with teams from five counties competing for statewide honors and for the chance to represent Illinois at the National 4-H Food Challenge in Texas on October 1.

In this exciting competition model, teams race against the clock with 40 minutes to identify a mystery ingredient, prepare a creative and delicious dish, research nutrition and cost information, identify potential food safety risks, and present their culinary creation to a panel of judges. This format provides a unique platform for youth to showcase and enhance their culinary skills and knowledge, learn from and collaborate with teammates, develop essential teamwork abilities, gain valuable public speaking experience, and foster leadership qualities. 

“It’s a good dynamic to introduce youth into group level work because it’s 40-45 minutes where you can find how you fit in a group dynamic,” says 4-H educator Jaylynn Schober who has run seven county level food challenge events before helping at the state event. “Are you a person who integrates everyone, are you someone who is more of a chef in a kitchen, are you a sous chef role? Kids can find that out about themselves and more.”

The 2024 theme, "It is Soy Amazing!", emphasizes the versatility and nutritional benefits of soy. Participants have had the opportunity to learn about soy through a virtual workshop prior to the event, equipping them with the knowledge to incorporate this ingredient creatively into their dishes. webinar was hosted by Jaiden Miller, Illinois Soybean Association Marketing Development Coordinator and Illinois 4-H Alum, who not only provided information about soy production and products but insight into potential career pathways.

This year’s state-level competitors included: Karissa Hammond and Tanner Woods from Clark County; Riliegh Howard, Kaylen Jordan, Destinee Ramsey from Crawford County; Noah Bass, Isiah Stephenson, Eric Sutton, Aiden Toohill from DeWitt County; Lily Anderson, Theresa Domingo, HaleyJo O’Neill from Ford County; and Claire Ginder, Kyle Kocher, Chloe Prevo, Natalie Zwilling from Richland County.

The Illinois 4-H Food Challenge not only promotes healthy decision-making through food and nutrition but also offers new learning opportunities. By connecting youth with Illinois agricultural products, the challenge helps them appreciate local farming and food production as well as valuable life skills.

“These competitions teach the youth so many things,” says Sally Ellis, a Paxton-Buckley-Loda teacher and Ford County team coach. “Collaboration: each team member may have their own area of expertise so it takes so much teamwork to be on the same page. Plus looking at a table full of food items and being able to create a meal out of it is so important because that’s what you’re going to do for the rest of your life. Sometimes you may have budgetary limits and you may need to create a meal for yourself or your family that is nutritious, and this competition teaches those skills.” 

The DeWitt County team was named the 2024 State Challenge Champions with their Spicy Sausage Curry dish and are eligible to advance to the National Competition.

This event was made possible thanks to the generous support of several key contributors. The Illinois Soybean Association provided grant funding that supported the event. Boos Butcher Block donated cutting boards and the Chicagoland Food Science Foundation contributed $50 Amazon gift cards to create robust prize packages for the winning teams. Chef Brian Kalata from Richland Community College attended the event and provided a tour of the college's Culinary Arts facility. Additionally, Jaime Boas, DeWitt, Macon, and Piatt Counties Extension Director, and her staff offered invaluable support in hosting, planning, and implementing the event.

About Illinois 4-H: Illinois 4-H is the flagship youth development program of University of Illinois Extension and administered through the College of Agriculture, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences. 4-H grows true leaders, youth who are empowered for life today and prepared for a career tomorrow. The hands-on approach in 4-H gives young people guidance, tools, and encouragement, and then puts them in the driver’s seat to make great things happen. Independent research confirms the unparalleled impact of the 4-H experience, demonstrating that young people are four times more likely to contribute to their communities; two times more likely to make healthier choices; two times more likely to be civically active; and two times more likely to participate in STEM programs. 

For Further Information, Contact:

Source:  Susan Sloop, University of Illinois Extension 4-H Youth Development Specialist, 

Writer: Carissa Nelson, Media Communications Manager, 4-H State Office,

About Extension

Illinois Extension leads public outreach for University of Illinois by translating research into action plans that allow Illinois families, businesses, and community leaders to solve problems, make informed decisions, and adapt to changes and opportunities. Illinois Extension is part of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.