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The Food Network Broke My Heart

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The Food Network's popular reality series Chopped departed from its standard lineup of contestants this past week to feature an unusual group of chefs: lunch ladies. The show is getting rave reviews. For those not addicted to watching other people cook on TV, Chopped usually highlights four professional chefs from various chi-chi restaurants and private enclaves competing for a $10,000 prize.

The four women cooking for the moolah in the recent episode were far from these "usual suspects." They were all low-level school employees who cook daily in the lowliest of eateries: school cafeterias. It goes without saying that lunch ladies are unsung sheroes. They have to prepare appealing, nutritious and filling meals five days a week for kids from all backgrounds -- and do it on low budgets. Unlike Chopped, there's no truffle oil and exotic herbs to help out.

Without question this show was an emotional roller coaster, not only for the contestants but for the audience and judges alike. It was hard not to get misty-eyed or just break down and bawl when watching and listening to what these women go through trying to do their jobs -- not to mention learning how much that $10,000 prize would mean. One contestant commented that it's more money than she makes in a year. Another said she and her colleagues are held in such low regard that they're not even allowed in the teacher's lounge at the schools they serve.

The format of the show demands creativity, speed, and grace under stress. These are all things fans are encouraged to not only notice but evaluate in each contestant, in addition to holding the judges accountable to a fair standard.

But as a regular watcher of the show, I noticed a couple of other things. First of all, the contestants were all female -- a departure from the usual three-guys-and-a-girl format. Why this time? It's easy. The lowest-paid workers in this country are adult females, including the majority of those like lunch ladies working for minimum wage. You don't hear about "lunch gentlemen" in schools for a reason.

Secondly, one of the women said she always makes pasta on Mondays. Just a routine? Not exactly. She works in a poor school, and many of her kids get little to eat on weekends. Because they always come to school hungry on Mondays, she tries to make something to fill them up.

And speaking of filling up, she personally prepares backpacks with weekend food for kids she knows will otherwise get no food at all. Despite the fact that one quarter of U.S. kids are suffering from what is euphemistically called "food insecurity," food programs are also on the congressional chopping block in the name of deficit reduction. Meanwhile, Big Food lobbyists in Washington have just succeeded in scuttling a new requirement for healthier school lunches, leaving intact a rule that a slice of pizza with two tablespoons of tomato paste counts as a vegetable. Is this a great country or what?

At the end of the show, in another departure from its standard format, Chopped brought out all the contestants (usually the defeated are hastily banished) for a last hug-around, including some kids from the schools represented. Tears flowed. As the host announced "another surprise," I was overjoyed to think that all four contestants were about to be awarded $10,000, if not for themselves, for their schools.

Boy, was I wrong. The surprise prize was -- ta da! -- a cooking course! As if these women don't already know how to cook, and under the most trying circumstances.

C'mon, Food Network, you should and could have done better -- lots better. I know one company can't be expected to solve the hunger crisis singlehandedly, but just this once you could have sprung for an extra $30k and done something really worthwhile. After all, your stars and contestants on other shows are whisked from coast to coast at the drop of a rolling pin, and that costs a lot of, uh, dough.

Many people have no idea of the extent of the hunger problem in our midst, nor do we see and hear the problems of low-income workers and families. So it's a commendable thing for a big-gun TV presence like Food Network to highlight the issue and give these women a chance to compete, even if in an slightly exploitive way.

But sadly, the irrelevant and trivial nature of the gesture in the end said it all. After such a high, the "reality" of this reality show hit like a thud. It really is all about that dough.

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