Culinary Students Dish Up Yummy Food, Do Teachers Proud

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Showing the world how good a school lunch can be, three 10th-graders from Jacksonville, Fla., took top honors last week in the national Cooking up Change competition sponsored by the Healthy Schools Campaign.

Cooking Up Change students

From left, culinary arts students Denver Singletary, Leoniqua Jackson and Alexus Baldwin.


Culinary arts students Alexus Baldwin, Leoniqua Jackson and Denver Singletary had to produce a tasty school lunch that would meet USDA nutrition standards for teenagers, use only ingredients and equipment found in a school cafeteria, and take just six steps to prepare—all at the cost of a school meal, about a dollar.

In accepting the award after a cook-off May 23 at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C., Singletary thanked the winning team's teacher and mentors for "showing us the mystery behind cooking." Judith Schmidt, their teacher and a member of Duval Teachers United, notes that as first-year culinary students and the youngest team competing, the three sophomores pulled off a "monumental achievement" because this year they had mainly a "front-of-the-house" kind of education to learn setup, busing tables and cleanup. This coming year, they'll be cooking.

Not that they aren't already. Their winning lunch—Caribbean beef ribs in a green salad, Moroccan rice and a sweet potato cornbread muffin—vied with outstanding meals from student finalists in five other cities: Chicago, Denver, St. Louis, Washington, D.C., and Winston-Salem, N.C.

The Jacksonville teachers and chef mentors cheered and cried as their students accepted the grand prize, and later described the 10th-graders as consummate team players, flexible and open to suggestion. Singletary, who says cooking has been his "biggest passion" since he was 8 years old, remembers how he, Baldwin and Jackson rushed to qualify for the competition in March. Baldwin says the best thing she took away was the challenge itself—"very exciting." And Jackson, inspired by her grandmother's cooking, is learning Italian and hopes to study the culinary arts abroad.

AFT executive vice president Lorretta Johnson was a judge for the event, the culmination of a process in which students designed a three-part menu and then had to survive scrutiny by dietitians, plus a qualifying contest and a national competition.

Cooking up Change originated in Chicago in 2007 to engage student chefs and the community in a discussion about school meals. Last year, when the competition went national, Chicago's students won and later testified about school food at a congressional hearing. Gerardo Garcia-Rodriguez, a 12th-grader on this year's Chicago team, offers another kind of testimony. "When I make food," he says, "I love the way people smile." His team's side dish, "Soup of Sunshine," received an honorable mention. [Annette Licitra/photo courtesy Healthy Schools Campaign]

June 1, 2011