NEW TAMPA — Ayushi Mavuduru carried a cardboard tray across the Bartels Middle School cafeteria Wednesday during a lunch party held in her honor. A clapping crowd followed her from the lunch line to her seat, where she sat to eat the turkey wrap she chose.
For Ayushi, an 11-year-old Turner Elementary fifth-grader whose class eats lunch at Bartels, the wrap was far from the usual school lunch fare, and not just because it was new to the menu. Ayushi had created the recipe for the third annual Cook it Up Ultimate School Lunch Chef contest — and she won.
Ayushi didn't expect to win, she said, and she wasn't even in it for the limelight. She just wanted the extra credit. Her math teacher had said everybody who submits a recipe to the contest receives 100 extra points.
"I was relieved," Ayushi said — she needed extra credit. Some of her math tests only have five questions, she said. "If you miss one, you're doomed."
So she learned the criteria for the contest, hosted by Hillsborough County Public Schools' Student Nutrition Services and Radio Disney: the entree had to be healthy, but it also had to have "kid appeal." It had to be easy to make and incorporate fresh Florida produce, and the contestant also had to write an essay.
Ayushi came up with a shredded turkey wrap — diced red bell peppers, tomatoes and celery; shredded cheddar, lettuce and turkey; plus mandarin oranges and barbecue sauce in a honey wheat tortilla.
The contest was open to third- through eighth-graders and the winner would receive prizes worth more than $1,000. Additionally, his or her recipe would be added to Hillsborough elementary and middle school lunch menus as a permanent part of a districtwide menu rotation. The contest is part of the district's effort to include students in choosing kid-friendly, nutritious school lunch options.
"Why not go straight to the source?" said contest creator Ginain Grayes, nutrition marketing and communication manager for Hillsborough County Public Schools. "We care about what (students) think."
About 125 students entered the contest, Grayes said. As one of five finalists, Ayushi prepared the wrap for a panel of culinary experts at a cookoff in January, with the help of her "sous chef" — the production coordinator in student nutrition services from Turner Elementary — who helped her dice and shred.
"I have no experience cutting anything," Ayushi said.
The cookoff's panel of judges picked Ayushi's wrap over recipes submitted by the other finalists, all of whom are older than Ayushi.
When asked what her peers might have learned from her win, Ayushi says: "Age doesn't always matter." And what she learned about herself could spark a career:
"I wasn't ever interested in being a chef," she said, "but now I think that could be a possibility."
In one lunch period Wednesday, the wrap sold out at Bartels.
"I'm very proud for her," said Ayushi's father, Prakash Mavuduru, 43. He knows the attention is a little overwhelming for Ayushi, he said. "She was used to eating lunch by herself," because most of her friends aren't in her class.
But at the party she won for her schoolmates, the crowd around her cheered.
"I hope (the contest taught her) to be optimistic," Mavuduru said. "Do your best, and good things happen."
Arleen Spenceley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6235.