WATERVILLE — Getting to meet the president of the United States and the first lady at the White House is not something an ordinary 9-year-old gets to do.
But Noah Koch of Waterville is anything but ordinary.
Noah got the chance to spend some time in Washington last month after representing Maine at the Healthy Lunchtime Challenge & Kids “State Dinner,” put on by Michelle Obama, food website Epicurious, the Department of Education and the Department of Agriculture. Noah’s recipe for a vegan powerhouse pesto pasta earned him the trip, which he and his mother, Hilary, took July 9.
Although he is just 9, Noah’s taste in food is advanced for his age. Along with strawberries, Noah’s favorite foods include spinach — cooked, not raw — broccoli and avocados. His fondness for healthful food is apparent when he looks puzzled about the topic of a popular candy.
“What’s a Sour Patch Kid?” he said, adding his hypothesis after proposing the question. “Is it someone who eats too many sweets?”
Noah’s love for healthful food comes from growing up with two parents who are passionate about changing their own eating habits along with providing a healthy environment for their two sons — Noah and 7-year-old Leo.
“This has been a process for us,” Hilary Koch said. “I was not raised vegetarian. I like meat and dairy and cheese. We believe this is a health issue. We believe this is better for your body.”
This process started as a personal choice for Hilary Koch and her husband, Arne Koch, a German professor at Colby College. The couple started to develop healthier eating patterns by the time Noah was born and continued when Leo was born. When Leo was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at 2 1/2 years old, Hilary and Arne were prepared for it.
“I feel very firmly that if your kids are only presented with certain choices, then that’s all they know and it’s what they will eat,” Hilary Koch said. About two years ago, both parents started on vegetarian diets. Noah and Hilary are trying to eat vegan, which involves eliminating all animal products from one’s diet; while Arne and Leo are vegetarian, abstaining from consuming meat. They don’t like the classifications.
“Ideally, as a family, we’re trying hard to eat as much of a whole-food, plant-based diet as we can,” Hilary Koch said.
The meal that earned Noah his trip to the White House was an original take on a classic Italian sauce. Pesto is typically high in fat, with sometimes as much as a cup of olive oil called for. Koch’s recipe cuts out some of the fatty oils and adds some “superfoods” that raise the nutrition of the dish to USDA MyPlate standards.
Noah’s Vegan Powerhouse Pesto Pasta calls for two avocados, one cup of fresh baby spinach, four cups of basil leaves, a half-cup of walnuts, one can of cannellini beans, two tablespoons of lemon juice, one garlic clove, a quarter-cup of olive oil, some black pepper and grape tomatoes, cut in half. It all goes over a plate of quinoa pasta.
The pesto was extremely fresh, with the fresh spinach and avocados adding a creamy coating to the pasta. The cannellini beans add a nice source of protein and deliver a different texture than that of the smooth pesto. The usual flavor of garlic is still present, and along with the basil and walnuts, provides a light, refreshing taste.
Only Noah and Hilary were awarded the trip to Washington. While Leo and Arne didn’t get to travel, they were part of the taste-testing process that led to Noah winning the contest.
In Washington, Noah and his mother went to the famous American chef Julia Childs’ exhibit, as well as the Smithsonian Institution’s Air and Space Museum before a healthful pizza party with all the other contest winners.
“We all signed a cookbook for the first lady,” Noah said.
The following day was all about the White House, Noah said. While the parents marveled at the spectacle of the White House, Noah said the children had their eyes on something else.
“All the parents wanted to see the different rooms in the White House, but there was this one last room where you go in and you see someone come out of the room with a balloon giraffe on his head,” Noah said, referring to a function room that had been turned into an area for the children to get gift bags and balloon animals.
While Hilary Koch enjoyed the experience, she wasn’t as enthusiastic about the balloon display.
“For an hour we stood around and watched balloons in the White House,” she said, smiling.
While Noah was waiting for his balloon UFO, it was his turn to meet the first lady.
“She told us her kids really liked pesto,” Noah said, adding that he was almost too scared to talk to Michelle Obama. The meeting lasted only a minute before Noah returned to get his UFO balloon and get ready for the luncheon.
“She said she was thankful that there are kids like Noah who are setting an example for his generation,” Hilary Koch said.
By chance, Noah and his mother were seated near the press table, which worked well when President Barack Obama made a surprise visit, heading to each table to talk with the contest winners and their families. He appeared in several Associated Press photos with the president.
He even got a fist bump from the president after Obama learned that Noah had made a favorite dish of his daughters.
While Noah enjoyed the time touring through Washington, he also took time to be an activist for plant-based diets. At the second Healthy on the Hill luncheon hosted by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, Noah spoke to staff members, interns and journalists on Capitol Hill — as well as several members of Congress — about the benefits of a plant-based diet.
“I didn’t do a speech,” Noah said, adding that it was more of a question-and-answer session. “They put a microphone in my lap because I didn’t want to stand up in front of them all.”
Noah’s hope is that his taste for healthful food and his love for physical activity will spread among his peers and eventually create a healthier environment to grow up in. Besides, he’s already the most popular kid at lunch, even before fist-bumping the president.
“My friends always want to trade lunches with me,” he said.
Jesse Scardina — 861-9239