VINELAND — Five student chefs from third, fourth and fifth grade had a lot on the line at the Johnstone Elementary School’s kitchen stadium here recently.

They were layering lettuce, tuna, tomatoes and various vegetables in the hope of being named the best salad maker in the school and, eventually, possibly the country.

Wearing chef hats and black aprons, all five students waited nervously to see which of their cuisines would reign supreme.

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The judges’ choice: 10-year-old fifth-grader Charles Farside’s taco salad, which was just that much more tasty and attractive than the rest of the field.

“I was a little nervous, but I calmed down,” Farside said after the judges hung a gold medal around his neck.

Farside said one secret to his success was presentation.

“You want to make it look nice,” he said. “People don’t want to eat a mess.”

Wednesday’s event was part of Sodexo’s national Future Chefs: Healthy Salad Challenge. Sodexo is the local school district’s food provider, serving an estimated 10,000 meals each school day and more than two million meals during the course of the school year.

Sodexo spokesman Keith Nocco said the event is designed to try to get youngsters to make healthier food choices.

“We think we have a better chance to do that at this age,” he said.

Local winners will eventually compete in regional competitions, Nocco said. A winner will be picked from national finalists via YouTube, he said.

Farside pitted his taco salad against Hakin Lowery’s “Firemen’s Delight Salad,” Sincere Wallace’s “Turkey Veronique Salad,” Kelsey Vasquez’s “Mexican Chicken Salad,” and Glen Murphy’s “Bad Boy Salad.” All are students at Johnstone, and were among the original 25 competitors selected by their classmates.

Johnstone Principal Louise Karkowski said the students did not just start whipping up salad recipes. Sodexo staff gave them a tour of the school’s kitchen, giving them lessons on everything from nutrition to food hygiene.

Perhaps that made the five finalists all the more confident.

Lowery said he fully expected to win the overall championship, something he thought would allow him to “travel around the world.” He took third place.

Even parents were excited about the event.

Paulina Murphy said her son, who helps with the family cooking, was “really excited” about the event. She said the event fits in with her family’s efforts to maintain a healthy lifestyle, adding that her son sometimes joins her for a workout at the gym.

Along with encouraging healthy eating habits, Karkowski said the event helped bring together staff, students and parents. She said she was encouraged by all the support given to the five participants.

Superintendent of Schools Mary Gruccio, who served as one of the judges, said there were really no losers.

“I’m proud of all the students,” she said.

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