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Local high schools face off in Regional 4-H Food Challenge

A pair of hands stirring a pot as a pan of sausages fries in the foreground.

URBANA, Ill — Teams from five local high schools gathered in Bevier Hall on the University of Illinois Campus for the Regional 4-H Food Challenge competition on April 12. The 4-H Food Challenge is a competition that promotes teamwork, gives youth experience in public speaking, and promotes proper food safety techniques and handling in a competitive manner, like the Food Network television show Chopped. This program partners with the local Education for Employment System #330 and area school districts and is funded by a grant from the Illinois Soybean Association.

The 4-H Regional Food Challenge includes research-based classroom lessons that follow the Experiential Learning Model and a culinary competition that helps to develop technical, creative, and interpersonal skills necessary for a career in the food service industry. The classroom lessons were designed to easily be embedded into current culinary courses, enhancing their content knowledge and skills. Each lesson allows students to practice applying their culinary skills through cooking challenges that foster creativity, teamwork, communication, and time management, all skills essential in the workplace.

Teams from Clinton, Iroquois West, Milford, Paxton-Buckley-Loda, and Rantoul High Schools earned the chance to compete by winning the competition at their high school.

“These kinds of hands-on educational approaches encourage youth to learn by doing, reflecting, and then applying their skills and knowledge,” said 4-H Youth Development Educator Mynda Tracy. “This is exactly what the 4-H Food Challenge accomplishes, and it's why it's such a valuable program.”

The teams were given five minutes of planning time followed by forty-five minutes of cooking time to create a dish that included all five food groups and three mystery ingredients, honey, apple cider vinegar, and soy products, to present to a panel of three judges. The judges for the competition were Illinois Extension Community Development Specialist Zach Kennedy, Extension Nutrition and Wellness Educator Rachel Mannen, and WCIA Meteorologist and Local Foodie Jacob Dickey. After the students were done competing, they received tours of the aquaponics greenhouse and the Food Science and Human Nutrition (FSHN) Pilot Plant. They received a presentation on the FSHN Program at the University of Illinois while the judges made their selections. The competition winners were the team of Eric Sutton, Izzy Stephenson, Noah Bass, and Aiden Toohill of Clinton High School and the team of Lily Anderson, HaleyJo O’Neill, and Theresa Domingo of Paxton-Buckley-Loda High School. Both teams will advance to the statewide Food Challenge competition.

“I was particularly impressed by the teamwork and technical skill displayed by the competing teams.  In just 45 minutes, they were able to come together, strategize, and execute a delicious and well-balanced dish,” said judge and Illinois Extension Nutrition and Wellness Educator Rachel Mannen. “It's inspiring to see the next generation of culinary talent so enthusiastic about food science and healthy eating habits.”

If you’re interested in learning more about 4-H programming, please contact the Illinois Extension office by phone at 217-333-7672 or via email at

About Illinois 4-H: Illinois 4-H is the flagship youth development program of the University of Illinois Extension and is administered through the College of Agriculture, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences. 4-H grows true leaders, youth empowered for life today and prepared for a career tomorrow. The hands-on approach in 4-H gives young people guidance, tools, and encouragement, putting 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. 

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.