Surreal, mind-blowing, awesome and life changing are just a few of the words Cranston residents Jennifer and Caroline Cowart used to describe their recent trip to the White House as part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s initiative to get kids to eat healthier.
Cowart originally heard about the collaboration between Epicurious magazine, Let’s Move organization and the First Lady when Cranston Herald Editor Meg Fraser emailed her the press release in mid-May. Cowart is the education report for the newspaper.
“When I first thought about it, I had the dilemma of which child to do it with. We [my husband and I] struggle to be equal with opportunities for our children. I knew it would be difficult to take on something that had the potential to be so big,” said Cowart.
Cowart emailed the press release to her daughter Caroline, who was at the top of the age limit bracket of 8-12 years old. The first obstacle came when Cowart’s middle child, 10-year-old Elizabeth, also wanted to participate.
“I was in limbo with making a decision about having both of them entering,” Cowart said. “What if one of them won, and the other didn’t?”
She debated several weeks until it was resolved that Caroline would enter with Mom, and Elizabeth would enter with Dad, Hope Highlands Principal Don Cowart.
This was a big step for Caroline to do something so far out of her comfort zone.
“I almost didn’t enter at all; this was a big risk for me to take,” Caroline said.
Putting her hesitation aside, Caroline decided to go for it.
The recipe did not take long to perfect. Caroline had to follow the guidelines set up by the Healthy Lunchtime Challenge. The recipe had to be healthy, creative, tasty and affordable. She spent time researching the ingredients, experimenting to get the correct measurements and making sure the dish subscribed to the new choosemyplate.org, which is the new food pyramid system. The hardest part was learning how to flip the omelet correctly she said.
Cowart submitted the egg white omelet recipe for Caroline and a tuna wrap recipe for Elizabeth and Don on June 9. After changing the date several times, Epicurious announced that winners would be notified on July 24.
Caroline refused to leave the house all day. Cowart kept checking and refreshing her email all morning. Then, at 11:30 the email came, “CONGRATULATIONS…”
Cowart could not believe it.
“The first person I called was Meg [Fraser] because she always had lots of faith in us,” Cowart said.
After that it was calls, texts, emails and Facebook to announce the exciting news.
Caroline’s first reaction was utter disbelief.
“Then once it sunk in, I was really happy. My first thought was what to wear? There aren’t too many people to ask for help in that area,” she said.
Elizabeth was excited for her sister.
“When I heard Caroline won, I jumped on her and hugged her. I was really happy, and honestly a very little jealous. I really liked my recipe, and I will enter the contest again with my Dad,” she said.
Once word got out about the win, phone calls and emails from well wishers started pouring in. They appeared first on Channel 12, Fox Providence, then it was Channel 10 with “Gene Around Town” and Caroline cooked with Chef Taranova. Senator Jack Reed called to offer his congratulations, they were interviewed for local public radio WRIPR, Gail Ciampo of the Providence Journal came to the house to interview them and the pair will be receiving a citation from Mayor Allan Fung On Sept. 11.
While attending a program at the library for the Summer Reading Program, Cowart told a librarian about Caroline and what they were going to be doing. Caroline was invited to present a Power Point presentation to summer students.
“The class was a culinary program co-op between the YMCA and the Cranston libraries. I showed them healthy foods that taste good,” she said.
The trip to D.C. itself was a whirlwind. Leaving Rhode Island on Sunday, Aug. 19 and returning Monday, Aug. 20, they were squeezing in as many things as possible.
“We were up at 3:30 a.m. for a 6 a.m. flight. We barely slept. All the attention we received locally was overwhelming,” Jennifer said.
Delta airlines donated all the flights for the 54 winners and their chaperones.
From 3 to 5 p.m., they were scheduled to go on a tour of the Smithsonian with the entire group from the event.
“The hotel atmosphere had such a special buzz. All the kids and parents, we got special welcome bags, we were able to talk and connect with other winners who had gone through what we had with all the attention back home,” Jennifer Cowart said.
The hotel provided a pizza party for the first night.
“By 9 p.m., we were physically and mentally wiped out,” Jennifer said.
Up at 6 a.m. the next morning, they had to be packed up and checked out of the hotel. A bus tour of D.C. took everyone around to see monuments and memorials.
Once they arrived at the White House, they had to go through five different security checkpoints.
“It was very serious, and everyone was very quiet,” said Caroline. “We weren’t allowed to take pictures during this part.”
Don had told them to pay attention to all the rooms they were in.
“He said, think of all the famous people who were here before you. You are standing where Abraham Lincoln stood, where JKF walked. It is a very important place,” Caroline said.
After security was done, they were escorted into the Grand Foyer for a “cocktail hour.” Guests were served lemonade and picked at fruit topiaries. The entertainment included a balloon contortionist, several musicians and as a special guest, Reed Alexander, who plays Nevel Paperman on Nickelodeon’s “iCarly.”
Winners were lined up by state to be greeted by Mrs. Obama. Before entering the room, security guards took all personal belongings from everyone, including purses, cell phones and cameras.
“Just before we were called in, the security guard ‘warned’ us, ‘she is a hugger,’” Jennifer recalled.
An official photographer took a picture of the three of them before the luncheon began.
“We ate our dinner in the East Room, the largest room in the White House and specifically, the room where Gilbert Stuart's painting of George Washington hangs,” Jennifer said. “That painting is the only artifact that survived the 1814 White House fire and the security guard was so impressed that I knew the painting was by Gilbert Stuart.”
Seeing the escort cards, the table settings and being announced made Caroline feel like royalty. At their table, they were seated with the winners from Nevada, Indiana, representatives from the Department of Education and Epicurious magazine. While people were talking and getting situated, there were plates of kale chips to munch on, which were the winning entry from another state.
Epicurious lead a discussion and asked everyone at the table to talk about their experience with the project back home.
Marshall Reed, the only child on the judging panel, introduced Mrs. Obama to the room. The First Lady approached the podium and applauded the parents and grandparents for nurturing a passion for cooking in their children.
“You have given them a sense of responsibility,” she said.
“Look around this room; all of this is for you. You had to work very had for this; you were picked out of 1,200 submissions. You are the only winner from your state, how cool is that?” she said.
Jennifer said the First Lady was gracious and kind to all the winners.
“She truly seemed very genuine, that this luncheon was much more than just about winning a prize. She went above and beyond to make this happen,” she said.
During lunch, the guests were surprised by a drop-in visit from President Barack Obama.
“I hope you don’t mind that I’m crashing the party,” he joked. “Please make sure there are no scraps on the floor, Bo [his dog] is on a diet.”
On a printed menu card, the food selections for the day had been printed out, and from which state each course came from.
Obama went around the room and shook hands with every child and adult.
“He spoke to everyone, telling the kids congratulations, good job,” Caroline said.
During dessert, the group Big Time Rush came out and performed five songs. After the meal was over, before it was time to board the buses to go back to the hotel, everyone was invited outside to see the White House garden. They grow tomatoes, peppers, corn and zucchini, among other things, and they have bees for honey. Everyone was given a small bottle of White House honey as a keepsake, which Jennifer said she would never use.
Looking back, Caroline said it is an experience she will never forget.
“I learned a lot about myself from this experience,” said Caroline. “Don’t be afraid to try or do something new and different. I was inspired by Miss USA Olivia Culpo when she said you have to take a leap of faith in life.”