Students Compete to Design Better Lunches

Jason Koebler

Instead of pizza and hotdogs, high school students in six U.S. cities are trying to serve up healthier lunch options to their classmates as part of a national cooking contest.

Students in public high schools with vocational culinary programs in Chicago; Denver; Jacksonville, Fla.; St. Louis; Washington, D.C.; and Winston-Salem, N.C., will compete to make the tastiest, healthiest lunch to serve their peers in the Cooking Up Change contest. The catch? The six-person teams can only spend about $1 per lunch and must order food from their school system's food supplier.

"They use and develop a lot of skills," says Rochelle Davis, founder of Healthy Schools Campaign, a nonprofit that tries to make school lunches healthier and school environments safer. "They learn to work with a team, prepare and plan a menu idea, [and] test their food. They have to get a nutritional analysis done, and present their meal to culinary professionals."

[Learn about a push to make school lunches healthier.]

Davis founded the organization 10 years ago in Chicago, where it does much of its work. The winning school at the Chicago contest, which will take place Nov. 3, will compete against students from five other cities in the national contest,which will take place next spring at the U.S. Department of Education building in Washington, D.C.

Dora Marron, a senior at North Grand High School in Chicago, says the program gets her classmates excited about school lunches.

"A lot of us are not interested in the food that they serve us; in this competition we can give them an idea of what we want," she says. Winning dishes in the past have been implemented into the Chicago Public School System's menus. "Hopefully, we win and they'll serve our food to us."

Last year, her team made sloppy joe spaghetti, honey nut cookies, and a seven-ingredient salad that included broccoli and apples.

Davis says that with a fairly limited menu of ingredients, student chefs get creative. Last year's "outstanding side dish" was called "Soup of Sunshine," which included apples, bananas, vegetables, chicken stock, and peanut butter.

[Read about the number of high schoolers who drink soda daily.]

In Chicago, the program operates out of 17 public schools that have vocational culinary programs. Marron says many of the students on her team last year have gone on to culinary school, something she hopes to do next year.

The experience of having her food judged by professionals helps her prepare to open her own restaurant one day.

"I get to understand what they want from us, they give us honest opinions--if it's so-so, they'll tell us," Marron says. The competition is like being on the Food Network, she notes. "When we do our presentation, we have to have a sense of professionalism, speak correctly and clearly, and we have to explain exactly what we've made."

The contest also gets students thinking about healthy options and nutrition in poorer communities where childhood obesity rates are high, Davis says. "It's not logical that the same group of kids [living in poverty] would be overweight," she says. "But fresh and healthier foods are more expensive and not available in those communities. Making sure school meals are healthy and teaching kids about health and wellness are of critical importance."

First lady Michelle Obama has championed a move toward healthier school lunches, and last year, Congress increased funding by six cents per lunch--two steps in the right direction, according to Davis.

But schools face other barriers: "Schools don't have proper facilities [or] a trained labor pool, [so] this is a longer-term journey. Congress gave schools an additional six cents to meet USDA dietary guidelines [but] nobody thinks it will only cost six cents."

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