Student Competition Leads the Way to Providing Healthy and Tasty School Meals


As members of Congress and the Administration debate nutritional requirements surrounding the National School Lunch Program, 22 high school students demonstrated what many of you already know – that it is possible for school meals to be both healthy and delicious. Completing in the Healthy Schools Campaign’s Cooking up Change National Finals, teams of student chefs from seven school districts where challenged to create a meal that not only met real-life Health, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 nutritional requirements on a tight budget but also tasty as well.

Judged on originality, taste, texture, appearance, and quality of their presentation, each of the dishes had to include a least 50% whole grains, a meat or meat alternative, a fruit and a vegetable. The meal also had to be between 500 and 600 calories, meet the USDA sodium Target 1 level for grades 9-12 (1,420 milligrams), cost no more than $1.25 per-person and be easy to reproduced on a large, cafeteria scale. Plus, students could only use equipment “commonly found” in school kitchens.

Conducted at the Department of Education in Washington D.C., Las Habra High School in Fullerton Joint Union High School District in Orange County, California won the competition for their Chicken Kashmir with Pepino Curry + Tropical Kheer.

“I was impressed that they took a bold approach to create a school entrée students would enjoy,” said Audrey Rowe, a consultant and former administrator for the Food and Nutrition Service of the USDA and one of the 15 judges on the panel. “They presented well and deserved to be winners.”

 “Food contributes a lot to how your brain works,” says Isabelle, who along with along with Yasmin and Carlos are members of the winning La Habra team. “If you don’t have breakfast, you’re [only operating] at 50%. Healthy food with a creative idea, good flavor and that’s cost effective can all be accomplished as long as we put the effort in.”

The competition welcomed Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who spoke with each of the teams about their experience with Cooking up Change and sampled their dishes. After meeting with the students, DeVos told them, “you don’t have to sacrifice flavor to eat smart” and encouraged them to “think big and act boldly” when it comes to their futures.

Finishing second was Fredrick Douglass High School in Detroit Public Schools Community District in Detroit, Michigan with their Zesty Chicken Rice Bowl with Tomato Lime Cucumber Wheels and Yogurt Splash. Barry Goldwater High School in Deer Valley Unified School District in Phoenix, Arizona took third place for their M&J Curry with Zesty Curried Corn and Potatoes and Darn Good Bananas.

“They worked so hard, I felt so proud of my kids,” said Betti Wiggins, former executive director in the Office of School Nutrition in Detroit Public Schools Community District of her students Kyle, Gerald, and Andre. “The Zesty Chicken Rice Bowl was so good, the chef in Detroit is going to put it on the school menu starting in September.”

Aside from the chicken, all the ingredients in the recipe were grown in their school garden, called the Debbie Stabenow Urban Agricultural Center.

“These three students were gardeners, not traditional culinary students,” explained Wiggins, who is now assistant superintendent for Nutritional Services at Houston (Texas) Independent School District. “There is no culinary program at their school so the students were members of the garden club, which is run by a math teacher. Our students blended agricultural stills with culinary arts to come up with their dish.”

Aside from the top three finishers, also competing in the Cooking up Change National Finals included: Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in Boston Public Schools, Richards Career Academy in Chicago Public Schools, Conrad High School in Dallas Unified School District and Ralph Bunche High School in Oakland Unified School District. Each of the finalists earned their way to the national by winning their local competition.

Truly a bipartisan affair, Senator Dick Durbin [D-Illinois] and Chef Daniel Giusti served as honorary co-chairs of Cooking Up Change. Following the competition, all the students descended upon Capitol Hill to meet personally with their legislators – including Durbin, Senators Ted Cruz [R-Texas] and Gary Peters [D-Michigan] and Representative Barbara Lee [D-California] – to talk about the importance of supporting high nutritional standards in school meals.

Since its inception in 2007, Cooking up Change has had more than 2,000 students involved in the competition and over 9,100,000 student-designed meals served in school cafeterias across the country.

“Lunch may seem like a small topic,” concluded Tatyanna, a student chef from District of Columbia Public Schools. “But, many children across the country depend on school lunch when they are hungry and this competition has shown me why it is such an important meal served in schools.”

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