Competing against hunger

On Wednesday, April 24, the Food Bank of South Jersey hosted its Hunger Games competition, an annual fundraiser benefiting their children’s programs.

Competitor Desiree Atkins begins the process of plating her team’s dish, tuna croquettes over a bed of lemon rice with a spicy remoulade sauce, observed by her team’s consultant, Chef Trina Davis (left), at the Food Bank of South Jersey’s annual Hunger Games competition.

The title “Hunger Games” may conjure images of the popular book and film franchise that depicts a dystopian future where young people are pitted against each other in a fight to the death, but for the Food Bank of South Jersey, the Hunger Games represent a very different contest that strives to create a much more hopeful future for people in need.

On Wednesday, April 24, the Food Bank of South Jersey hosted its annual Hunger Games competition at its headquarters in Pennsauken. During the fundraising contest, 15 teams were given 45 minutes to create a healthy meal using a box of mystery ingredients that the food bank typically distributes through its pantry network.

Competitors were also able to solicit donations from audience members to purchase additional special ingredients to make a more unique dish.

“Each year this competition highlights what so many parents, grandparents, seniors and families struggle with when they try to put a wholesome meal on the table,” said Fred Wasiak, president and CEO of the food bank. “Our teams get a firsthand look at how difficult it is to create a healthy meal with limited resources. They learn quickly that they need the support of the audience to purchase additional ingredients that can make their dish stand out.”

When a team completed its dish, it was presented to a panel of four guest judges. This year’s judges included Tammy Paolino, a journalist and food blogger with the Courier-Post; restaurateur and founder of Tony Luke’s, Tony Luke Jr.; Philadelphia chef and two-time “Hell’s Kitchen” contestant Milly Medley; and Marilyn Johnson, founder and food blogger for Philly Grub.

For Luke, the contest came down to two simple things: presentation and flavor.

“For me personally, I don’t really break food down. I look at the presentation and then I taste it. How well do they go together? It’s no more complicated than that for me, I either like it or I don’t like it,” said Luke.

Given the limited resources competitors were provided with, Luke also took into consideration the way teams used the ingredients they were given.

“It’s a huge factor, but that’s where creativity comes in, and to me, food is all about creativity,” said Luke.

Guest judge, Tony Luke Jr. strikes a pose with one of the many dishes judges scored during the Food Bank of South Jersey’s annual Hunger Games competition.

Willingboro resident Desiree Atkins’ team, sponsored by Forman Mills, used its ingredients to make tuna croquettes over a bed of lemon rice with a spicy remoulade sauce.

According to Atkins, her team was made up of amateur chefs, bringing only their home cooking experience to the table.

“We’re untrained home chefs,” said Atkins. “We just all like to cook, that’s all it is.”

She said her team’s approach was to wow the judges with bold, enticing flavors.

“Our approach was to try to hit them where it hurts: in the stomach. We want to make sure that it tastes so good it hurts,” said Atkins.

Although the event offered a variety of sights, sounds, tastes and smells for attendees, project coordinator of Health and Wellness for the South Jersey Food Bank, Marquita Speed, hoped people remember the spirit of the Hunger Games.

“Today is all about charity,” said Speed.

According to its website, to date, the food bank has distributed 2,078,927 pounds of food to Burlington County through its Hope Mobile program, which delivers truckloads of food to “food deserts,” areas that lack access to a viable network of food sources.

The majority of the proceeds from the Hunger Games went toward the food bank’s children’s programs, specifically its Summer Meals program.

During the school year, many children rely on their school’s breakfast and lunch programs for daily meals. Through the food bank’s Summer Meals program, children are provided with breakfast, lunch and snacks for 10 weeks during the summer months, helping to bridge that gap in their regular diet.

According to the food bank’s website, it has provided 28,275 meals to children in Burlington County through the Summer Meals program.

For more information about the South Jersey Food Bank, or to learn about how you can volunteer, visit