Student Well-Being

Students Showcase Culinary Skills on Front Lines of the Fight Over School Food

By Evie Blad — June 10, 2014 5 min read
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Ten teams of high school students descended upon Washington this week for the national finals of Cooking Up Change, a Top Chef-like culinary competition that challenges teenagers to cook tasty meals within a rigid set of rules that mimic the time, equipment, regulatory, and budget constraints of a typical school cafeteria.

Those constraints include heightened nutrition standards implemented as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. As the students spent the day cooking Monday in the kitchen at the U.S. Department of Education’s headquarters not far from the Capitol, a battle about those rules continued to boil around them.

This week, members of the U.S. House of Representatives are expected to begin discussions of language passed by the body’s appropriations committee that would allow some schools to opt out of the heightened meal requirements next year. And on Thursday, the Senate’s agriculture committee will begin discussions of reauthorizing the child nutrition act. Some critics of the heightened school meal standards have suggested congress may dial them back through that process.

So the student teams from all over the country will also take to the Hll this week, meeting with their federal lawmakers to tell them about their experiences. Those students will include the winning team from Orange County, Calif., who wowed many judges with a kickin’ fish taco, a “zesta fiesta salad,” and “yummy tummy bananas,” frozen banana halves that were rolled in yogurt and granola.

The judges included Karen Duncan, who is the wife of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (who himself stopped by as students cooked) and the honorary co-chairwoman of Cooking Up Change, which is organized by the Chicago-based Healthy Schools Campaign. Other members of the 16-person judging panel included celebrity chef Spike Mendelsohn (of “Top Chef” fame); Janey Thornton, deputy under secretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture; Jonathan Brice, the deputy assistant secretary for policy at the Education Department; and, well, me.

As a reporter covering school food issues, I take no position on the current debate. As a fan of both eating and enthusiastic teens, I agreed to sit on the judging panel long before any of us knew the nutrition debate would be so frantic this week. So we all sat together and ate portions of 10 school lunches while we talked food policy (Mendelsohn, contorting his face, encouraged Duncan to do “mouth yoga” to prepare for the long night of eating).

“It’s hard to believe that anyone could in good conscience try to roll back the standards for school food, but that is exactly what is happening as we stand here today,” said Rochelle Davis, the president and chief executive officer of the Healthy Schools Campaign.

But many supporters of waivers from the nutrition requirements say they support the goal of healthy school meals. The standards are just “too much, too fast,” those waiver proponents, which include the School Nutrition Association, have said.

Student chefs said their meals were proof that it’s possible to meet the nutritional standards while still making delicious food that their peers will actually eat, but they also confessed to hitting some hurdles that will sound familiar to many cafeteria workers. Almost every team explained their struggle to make foods flavorful without adding more sodium. Their solutions included lime juice, garlic, and lots of chili powder. While the results were pretty tasty in many cases, I think it’s safe to say most home cooks would have sprinkled on some salt before serving most of the dishes.

Among the other requirements the students had to follow:

  • Total meal cost could not exceed the cost of an average meal in each team’s own school cafeteria. That cost varies depending on size of the district and its purchasing power, but it was generally between $1 and $1.50 for most teams.
  • Each lunch had to have one main dish and two side dishes. All of those dishes had to contain ten or fewer ingredients from a list of foods commonly used in school meals, and each dish had to be prepared in six or fewer steps.
  • Teams could only use equipment common in school kitchens (no waffle irons, blenders, or food processors). Of course, actual school kitchens vary widely—ranging from glorified closets good for nothing more than opening prepared foods to fully equipped commercial spaces.
  • Every dish had its own caloric and nutritional restrictions, and the total meal had to be between 750-850 calories with no trans fat, fewer than 10 percent of calories from saturated fat, and fewer than 1,420 milligrams of sodium.

The resulting dishes were nothing like the rectangular pizza and Tater Tot-filled dishes of my youth. A team from Wichita, Kan., made macaroni and cheese with bleu cheese and chunks of chicken baked in a spicy buffalo sauce. From Jacksonville, Fla., came a Thai chicken wrap and a grilled pineapple shortcake that I would love to replicate on my own. From Chicago, curried chicken drumsticks and a fresh “Caribbean garden salad.”

Deliberations were tough, and the votes were tight. While I favored tangy, fresh side dishes to balance out a meal, other judges lobbied for original main dishes, like empanadas. Food is a personal thing, and we all bring our experiences to the table when we eat it. Perhaps that’s why nutrition debates can get so intense.

First, second, and third place teams won prize packs of kitchen equipment and appliances. But all of the teams competing in Washington Monday had already won regional qualifying events, and they’ve all had the honor of seeing their meals served in their schools’ cafeterias. The contest is in its fourth year, and school sponsors said some of their districts continue to serve all or part of winning meals from previous years. In Orange County, for example, cooks continue to serve a chicken wrap to students, but they’ve discarded a recipe for crepes that they deemed too time-consuming, a sponsor said.

Does the contest prove that it’s easy to follow the nutritional rules while making a meal that’s palatable and flavorful? Like the right amount of salt to put in a dish, the answer to that question may be somewhat subjective. Students said the process of creating and revising recipes made them more mindful of the importance of good nutrition, but they admitted it was a great challenge. Cathal Armstrong, a contest judge and professional chef, told the rest of the panel that he’d tried to cook a meal that adhered to the standards earlier without success.

“I broke about 10 rules, and I went way over budget,” he said.

Top photo: A reporter interviews student participants in the Cooking Up Change competition Monday at the U.S. Department of Education’s cafeteria kitchen in Washington. --Eric Kruszewski for Education Week

Middle photo: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is interviewed Monday at the U.S. Department of Education as he visited participants in the Cooking Up Change competition. --Eric Kruszewski for Education Week

Bottom photo: My cell phone photo of the winning lunch.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.