High School Students Cooking Up Change

High School Students Cooking Up Change

Mon 29 Jul 2013

Story by Rochelle Davis, President and CEO, Healthy Schools Campaign

High School Chefs Are Rewriting the Recipe for School Food at Cooking up Change®

Every teenager wants to change the world. And last month, in Washington, DC, one group of talented young chefs set out to do just that, starting with their school cafeteria. Last month at the U.S. Department of Education, eight teams of high school culinary students from around the country served up their vision for healthy, delicious school food as part of the Cooking up Change® national healthy cooking contest.

For the second year in a row, the contest winners came from Santa Ana Valley High School in Santa Ana, California. Student chefs Cesar Amezcua, Carlos Ortiz and Cecilia Magaña wowed the judges and the audience with their meal of “Pita-Packs-a-Punch,” a pita filled with ground turkey and colorful veggies served with a side of hot and sweet slaw, and apple crêpes.

For these students, the contest is more than just about who wins, however. It also provides invaluable, practical experience that will serve them in their future careers and offers many important lessons about school food. Magaña and Ortiz both noted that the contest was a huge eye-opener for them about the real-world challenges faced by school food service programs. On Tuesday, students participated in a legislative briefing about the need for more investment in healthier school food and school kitchens, and even met with their legislator, Rep. Loretta Sanchez.

Cooking up Change

Cooking up Change began in Chicago in 2007 as a way to involve a student voice in the national conversation about school food. Each team creates a healthy, delicious school lunch—a dish with protein and whole grains, a vegetable side and a fruit side—that adheres to strict nutritional guidelines and is prepared under conditions that echo real-world school food service programs. This is no easy task for even the most seasoned professionals, and students show a lot of ingenuity by creating dishes that not only fall within these parameters, but are dishes that they and their peers would want to eat.

The contest has grown significantly over the past seven years: this year, regional contests were held in Chicago, Denver, Jacksonville, Los Angeles, Memphis, Orange County (Calif.), St. Louis and Winston-Salem, and the winners from these contests participated in the national finals in DC. Many of the students look to city, regional and cultural traditions to flavor their dishes, leading to exciting; healthful takes on everything from Tex-Mex to Memphis BBQ.

For many of these students, the investment in healthy cooking is personal, and each student brings that with them to the kitchen. Anna, from Winston-Salem, began experimenting with healthy cooking when her brother was diagnosed with a number of severe food allergies. Leo, from Chicago, said the contest inspired him to commit to healthy eating, and he has since lost weight and says he feels much better, and healthier.

Some of the student meals have gone on to be part of the regular school lunch rotation in their home school districts, and students who participate in Cooking up Change continue to make an impact in the cafeteria. And perhaps more importantly is the change happening at home: many students tell us they’re cooking more with health in mind at home with their families. For many of these students, the investment in healthy cooking is personal, and each student brings that with them to the kitchen. Cecilia, a chef from this year’s winning Orange County team, says she wants to be a role model for her nieces and nephews and teach them about the importance of healthy cooking.

“Cooking up Change is a great experience and this competition should keep going so students can learn and kids can develop skills, like how to replace meals and make healthier choices,” Cecilia says. “It will make a change, and it will happen.”

About the author: Rochelle Davis brings broad experience as a leader in children’s wellness and environmental health to her role as President and CEO of the Healthy Schools Campaign (HSC), a national not-for-profit organization she founded in 2002. HSC advocates for national, state and local policies and programs that make schools healthy places to learn and work.


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