An elementary school in Southwest Austin is getting a new cafeteria, and one of its students went home from school Dec. 4 with a $15,000 check thanks to a kids' cooking contest.
First-grader Sam Thyng, 6, won a national rice-cooking contest from Uncle Ben's that came with a prize that benefited the school, too.
Thyng's dish, a skull-shaped Halloween dish called "Creepy Calzones With Squirmy, Wormy Rice," was chosen as one of five grand prize winners out of hundreds of entries across the country.
Mills Elementary School Principal Lalla Beachum says that, as the school is celebrating its 20th year, they plan to use the $30,000 prize for renovations. The cafeteria could use some freshening up, especially the stage where students lead the school in pledges, anthems, daily announcements and, on a recent Tuesday morning, a play from the school's Social, Emotional Learning committee on friendship.
That's where the young cook accepted a check so big that, when propped on a table, it covered his face as the photographers who had gathered were trying to take his picture. On stage with him was his mother, Amy, who later said the key to this being fun for Sam was making sure that the cooking environment stayed low-key.
Entering the cooking contest wasn't about winning the contest, she says. They just wanted an excuse to play with their food, which they've been doing since Sam was a toddler.
"Ever since he was little, we would use Play-Doh to make play food, and then when he got a little older, we started to make real foods," she says.
"We try to make an effort as a family to cook," says Sam's dad, Matthew. "It's not every day that we cook, and at first it was just dumping something in, but now we try to get him involved in more advanced stuff. Not enough people are going into life with those skills."
Sam, who was stunned a little shy by the whole morning, enjoys making pizza the best because he loves to eat the ingredients along the way, his mom says. What is the family going to do with the prize money? Responsible, boring things, Matthew Thyng said, plus a little fun. He's hoping for an Instant Pot.
Principal Beachum says that in her years at the school, food has been increasingly seen as a creative outlet for students. "When I talk to students about a reward that they'd like to have at home, it's walking around the block or cooking with the family," she says. "Those are things that they really like to do as a treat."
Kids watch "Iron Chef" and "MasterChef," and they have fun trying to re-create what they see on TV and then get to eat the results, she says. "That's what kids love the most."