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Student chefs are 'cooking up change'

With cooking, timing can be everything. So perhaps it was only natural that the timing of the Healthy Schools Campaign's Cooking up Change contest for high school culinary students June 9 coincided with the congressional debate over school lunch policy, giving students a voice in what is served up in their cafeterias.

Competition was fierce, as 10 teams of students, from 10 different states, presented nutritious, great-tasting lunches on a tight budget—something food service professionals do every day—and won high praise from a panel of celebrity chefs, educators and policymakers.

Cooking Up Change

First prize went to the Kickin' Taco, Zesta Fiesta Salad and Yummy Tummy Bananas from Valley High School in Orange County, Calif., but judges said it was a tough choice. Other possibilities included dishes like Buffalo Mac & Cheese from Wichita, Kan., a Raspberry Vinaigrette Fruit Salad from Orlando, Fla., and Houston's Lonestar Chicken Chili Sub, which had quite a kick.

Cooking up Change is designed to include students in healthy food choices in their schools. To qualify for the trip to Washington, D.C., each team of student chefs, guided by culinary instructors and dietitians, had to win a state competition first, creating recipes with no more than six steps (so the meals could be replicated on a large scale) and making them in real school kitchens. The winning teams then reproduced their menus for judges at the Department of Education, and hosted guests who sampled their recipes at a reception.

Students also had plans to testify at congressional hearings June 10, urging legislators to preserve policies that require more nutritious food in the cafeteria. Some members of Congress are considering waivers for schools that say it is difficult to meet new requirements for more whole grains, fruits and vegetables in school lunches.

But these students prove that "healthy food is more than doable," said Karen Duncan, wife of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and one of the judges. Secretary Duncan visited the students during their cooking session; so did White House Chef Sam Kass. Other judges included Cathal Armstrong, of Restaurant Eve; Spike Mendelsohn, who runs Good Stuff Eatery and Woodberry Kitchen; Marriott Corporate Chef Brad Nelson; James Beard Foundation President Susan Ungaro; and Shellie Pfohl, executive director of the President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition.

Culinary teams traveled from Chicago; Houston; Jacksonville, Fla.; Little Rock, Ark.; Los Angeles; Memphis, Tenn.; Orange County, Calif.; Orlando, Fla.; Wichita, Kan.; and Winston-Salem, N.C. Second place went to Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles for its BBQ Chicken Pizza, Spicy Bean Dip and Tropical "C" Burst. Third place went to Chicago Vocational Career Academy for its Curry Chicken, Caribbean Garden Salad and Plantains.

[Virginia Myers/Healthy Schools Campaign photo]