Sun Valley FFA group places fifth in national competition

INDIAN TRAIL – When four students from the Sun Valley High School Future Farmers of America club set out for Indianapolis last month, they had no idea making a salad would help them place within the Top 5 in a national FFA competition.

(Left to right) Dale Cochran, Mackenzie Graham, Liz Keech, Amber Reed and Kayla Sumile

Seniors Amber Reed, Mackenzie Graham and Kayla Sumlie and recent graduate Liz Keech put their knowledge to the test over the course of two days in the National FFA Food, Science and Technology Career Development Event as they competed against dozens of other teams throughout the country. The girls ended up placing fifth among the competition’s top placing teams, and Liz was the 10th top placing individual, earning a $400 scholarship.

Sun Valley’s FFA advisor Dale Cochran said this is the first time the school has participated in the national competition. Club members have competed at the state level for the last 10 years, he said, but have never placed first and had the opportunity to travel to nationals.

“As far as being able to compete, that was just an awesome accomplishment,” Cochran said. “I was just tickled to death. (The students) really worked hard. They practiced a lot for the state competition. Then it was like, ‘We finally won this!’ We’ve been working hard for years to accomplish this.”

The competition took place Oct. 24 and 25. During the first day, the students had to complete a 50-question multiple choice test to show their knowledge of food science, safety and common food-related illnesses.

On the second day, the real challenges began as the students competed in a variety of hands-on activities to show their smarts. First, they had to look at photos of the inside of restaurants and identify the visible safety violations in each photo.

Next, they had to look at three samples of a food product and recognize which one was out of place, followed by taste and aroma tests where they had to identify certain flavors and scents.

But the biggest component of the competition came last. All groups had to put together their own food product – a side salad kit. The students were required to choose the ingredients they would use in their salad, put the ingredients into some kind of a container and create a nutritional label.

They also had to know what temperature the ingredients could be safely stored, the cost range of their product and how to market it toward their target demographic – the “baby boomers.”

Amber, Mackenzie, Liz and Kayla chose to use spinach leaves, cranberries and croutons, among other ingredients, and separated the ingredients in the container to avoid making them soggy.

“They didn’t mix it all together. They put (the ingredients) in little plastic cups and kept it separated so they didn’t have soggy croutons and stuff,” Cochran said. “It had to be something that could last a few days without getting soggy and nasty. They knew they did the right thing.”

Cochran said the competition didn’t just teach the students FFA-related material. It also challenged their skills in other areas, such as mathematics and teamwork.

“There was a lot of math involved in it, doing a nutritional label,” he said. “There was teamwork, too. One girl’s job was to break down ingredients. Another girl (figured) out the cost, and another girl was the spokesman for the group. Each one had a job.”

Cochran said he urged the girls to do their best at the competition, but with it being the first time the school competed at the national level, no one had lofty expectations for how high they would place. When they found out they’d placed fifth, the group was ecstatic.

“Just seeing the smiles on their faces … they couldn’t believe it. They were really excited,” Cochran said.

Students in the Sun Valley FFA club participate in outside activities and competitions frequently – sometimes multiple times during one month. The club is gearing up for upcoming dairy, tractor and truck driving safety and agriculture business competitions.

“I think the biggest thing for me is it gives kids a chance to be successful at something they enjoy doing,” Cochran said. “These students don’t always want to participate in a sport or be in another type of club, but they become attached to what we’re doing, our program, and it gives them a chance to compete in something and do good at something.”

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