Guest Blogger Rochelle Davis (Healthy Schools Campaign) on “Cooking Up Change”

Today I’m turning The Lunch Tray over to Rochelle Davis, President and CEO of Chicago-based Healthy Schools Campaign.  In her guest blog post below she tells us about Cooking Up Change®, an annual student school food cooking contest, the finals for which took place earlier this week DC.  

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

by Rochelle Davis, President & CEO of the Healthy Schools Campaign

Often, the greatest advocates for investment in delicious and healthy school food are the students themselves. They’re the ones eating the food, after all! This week, 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® healthy cooking contest national finals. 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 crepes.

Last year's Cooking Up Change participants
Last year’s Cooking Up Change participants

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 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 protein dish, a vegetable side and a fruit side—that adheres to strict nutritional guidelines and is prepared under the same conditions faced by school food service programs. These conditions are not easy to navigate for the most seasoned professional, let alone high school culinary students! Students show a lot of ingenuity by creating dishes that not only fall within these parameters, but are dishes that their peers will enjoy.

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 Washington, DC. Many of the students look to city, regional and cultural traditions to flavor their dishes. For example, Tavarious and LaKeidra, from Memphis, created a veggie-packed spin on traditional Memphis BBQ flavors, while the team from Los Angeles created a Tex-Mex inspired main dish packed with black beans for protein.

Many Cooking up Change 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. Marina, from Chicago, says the contest has inspired her to cook healthier meals at home and lower her family’s risk for high blood pressure. 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.

“My greatest experience here in Washington, DC was, first of all, seeing all the beautiful monuments that are here, and second, working with all the students who have been working really hard to change the way students eat in the cafeteria,” student chef Cesar Amezcua says. “It was a wonderful experience working with all of them.”

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Thanks to Rochelle for sharing this post with us on today’s Lunch Tray!

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