Power Cookie Wins A Perfect 100 Score

Jalen Payongayong (left) and Kelsey Cruz took home gold medals and a perfect score at the FCCLA national conference. Photo from Jeffrey Sampson.

Jalen Payongayong (left) and Kelsey Cruz took home gold medals and a perfect score at the FCCLA national conference. Photo from Jeffrey Sampson.

Recent Kapolei High School graduates Kelsey Cruz and Jalen Payongayong returned home from the Family, Career and Community Leaders of America National Leadership Conference in San Antonio, Texas, last month with a gold medal in the Food Innovation category.

The reason for this high accolade is their power cookie, Aina Bites, which is made up of local ingredients and designed to provide a healthy, filling snack.

Kapolei High culinary teacher Jeffery Sampson, who accompanied the girls on the trip, sat anxiously at the conference awards ceremony, waiting for their names to be called.

“I was nervous going in because I didn’t know what the competition was going to be like at the nationals,” Sampson admitted. The conference, after all, attracted thousands of young competitors from across the country.

“They were the very last ones to be called,” he recalled.

But Sampson knew that was a good thing. Because of their placement in the awards ceremony — the higher scoring teams are announced later — Sampson knew that they had scored high. But he didn’t know just how high until they got their paperwork a few hours later: They earned a perfect 100 from all of the judges.

Participants were scored on their display, which included product testing method, nutritional information and safety and sanitation; product packaging, including design effectiveness and marketability; and oral presentation, which includes their knowledge of the subject matter and response to evaluators’ questions.

Sampson believes that this project has helped Cruz and Payongayong acquire a range of skills that are widely applicable.

“I think they learned a whole lot about hard work,” he explained. “They learned from A to Z how to start a business, from market research and trial and error on the recipe, and the accounting behind the costs of things.

“It wasn’t just like they made a recipe and said, ‘Mmm, these are good, let’s sell them.’ They had a full cycle of a small business startup.

“They went above and beyond on everything,” added Sampson, who has owned a string of restaurants locally, including food truck Firehouse. A Kapolei culinary educator for the past few years, Sampson has taken the reins on the program starting this school year following longtime teacher Cynthia Pratt’s retirement.

In addition to Cruz and Payongayong, about 25 other students from Hawaii also competed in the national conference in a range of categories. All of them traveled together as a group and, in addition to participating in the conference, the teens also had the chance to experience a little bit of Southern living.

“A lot of the kids had never even been off the island,” Sampson said, adding that the students marveled over things like squirrels and trains. “We took them all over, and they got to experience all of the different foods … The little things like that had them really excited.”

Sampson took some of the culinary students on a food tour, giving them a chance to explore Tex-Mex cuisine and Southern barbecue. They also went to Austin to visit the state capitol and University of Texas.

As for the future of Aina Bites, Sampson is so confident about the product that he has even offered to help the students sell it, if they want.

“It’s something that I think people will enjoy and people will like,” he said. “They have a really nice product.”