All photos Laura Hayes

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High school level culinary students from seven U.S. cities stood bravely in front of a panel of judges yesterday to offer their expertise in solving one of the biggest challenges facing this country: how to provide school children with healthy meals while budgets shrink and a growing population of kids depend on school food for the bulk of their daily nutrition.

Each team of two or three students presented a meal at the U.S. Department of Education consisting of a main dish, one vegetable side dish, and one fruit side dish all for a total cost of $1.25 or less. But that wasn’t the only requirement of the 10th Cooking Up Change competition put on by the Healthy Schools Campaign. Meals also had to hit within a certain calorie range (750-800), have a limited amount of sodium, and be suitable for mass production within a school cafeteria.

Students describe finessing their recipes like playing a game of whack-a-mole. When they finally got the budget set, a new problem would emerge like the meal coming in under the required calorie count. One by one, each team stepped up to be judged on originality, taste, appearance, and a short presentation about the school meal that took months and months to perfect.

Feast your eyes on what they came up with:

Boston

Boston Public Schools, Madison Park Technical Vocational High School: Jennifer Flores, SaiAnna Hilare, and Ashley Meneide

Sautéed chicken, onions, and peppers with brown rice in a fajita bowl with fresh tomato and corn salsa and banana bites

Chicago

Chicago Public Schools, Richards Career Academy: Jeffrey Gonzalez, Naheishia Hitchcock, Raudel Ruiz, and Edgar Villegas

Vesuvio chicken and spaghetti with chopped Caesar salad and caramelized pear-pone

Dallas

Dallas Independent School District, Conrad High School: Jorge Bahena, Trishna Biswa, and Karla Bocanegra

Crispy chicken tender wrap, sassy Italian corn, and banana delight

Detroit

Detroit Public Schools Community District, Frederick Douglass High School: Kyle DavisGerald Garlington, and Andre Harris

Zesty chicken rice bowl, tomato lime cucumber wheels, and yogurt splash 

Oakland

Oakland Unified School District, Ralph Bunche High School: Jaye Poindexter and Jimmy Saliphan

Thai chicken roll-up with dipping sauce, steamed broccoli, and spiced applesauce

Orange County

Fullerton Joint Union High School District, La Habra High School: Carlos Marquez, Yasmin Marquez, and Isabella Moreno

Chicken kashmir, pepino curry, and tropical kheer

Phoenix

Deer Valley Unified School District, Barry Goldwater High School: Jason Forari and Michael Griffin

M&J curry, zesty curried corn and potatoes, and darn good bananas

One of the judges, Chef Cathal Armstrong of Restaurant Eve in Alexandria and the forthcoming Wharf restaurant Kaliwa, says flavor was the most important factor. This isn’t his first time judging and there is one area that he’d like to see improvement in eventually. “Price restrictions limit what they can work with, that’s why you see a lot of chicken,” he says. “Seeing a vegetarian option would have been nice.”

More specifically, he’s disheartened by the amount of pre-cooked frozen chicken. “I want to see more cooking in schools.” For example, he says if a school roasts chicken they may blow their budget that day, but the next day they could make chicken salad, and the day after that, chicken soup.

That’s precisely what another Cooking Up Change judge and honorary co-chair is working on. Chef Daniel Giusti, who once cooked at Noma in Copenhagen, founded Brigaid to change school lunch culture by refurbishing school cafeterias and by putting chefs in there to cook. The program is currently being piloted in New London, Connecticut. 

After the presentations, the students filed into a reception as they awaited results from the judges. Students handed out tasting portions of their school lunches to attendees, including Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Ultimately, Orange County came in first place, followed by Detroit in second, and Phoenix in third. 

But the real work happened today when the competitors took to Capitol Hill to speak with legislators about prioritizing school lunch issues. To fire everyone up for the task at hand, Healthy Schools Campaign President & CEO Rochelle Davis told attendees at the reception that the time is now to improve school lunch as childhood obesity is on the rise. Also, she says, “The Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue is rolling back healthy food standards for school lunch programs.”