Eight teams of student chefs from across the country converged on the U.S. Department of Education (ED) headquarters recently to be judged on their efforts to create innovative and healthy menus for school lunches that would appeal to their fellow students.
The teams were national finalists in the Healthy Schools Campaign Cooking Up Change competition. It recognizes and rewards students who develop tasty and nutritious meals that meet the same strict monetary and dietary standards that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) sets for real school lunches.
After preparing their menus in the ED cafeteria, the students were assessed by a panel of judges on the presentation, delivery, and taste of their meals. Those gathered for the final competition included food industry supporters, ED staff, parents, and students, who began boiling over with excitement as the time came to announce the winners:
. . . third place went to the team from Phoenix for “M&J Curry, Zesty Curried Corn and Potatoes, and Darn Good Bananas”;
. . . second place went to the team from Detroit for “Zesty Chicken Rice Bowl, Tomato Lime Cucumber Wheels, and Yogurt Splash”;
. . . and top honors went to . . . the team from Orange County, California, whose members impressed the judges with “Chicken Kashmir, Pepino Curry, and Tropical Kheer.”
With tears of joy, the Orange County team came on stage in ED’s auditorium to collect their trophy and give short speeches, thanking their families, schools, and the head chef who taught them all they know about cooking. The remaining seven teams were awarded medals. All eight teams had won local and regional cooking competitions to advance to the finals in Washington.
One important aim of the Cooking Up Change competition is to encourage the public to view USDA standards as a goal worth meeting rather than as a challenge that’s insurmountable. “These incredible students demonstrated that meals can be both healthy and delicious!” remarked Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos after trying all of the student chefs’ creations. She mentioned how impressed she was with the finalists’ cooking efforts and added, “You don’t have to sacrifice flavor to eat smart.” The secretary also lauded the teamwork that was required to create such complex and unique recipes.
Those gathered for the competition understand that healthy meals provide students with the nutrients they need to be active learners — critical for them to attain a high-quality K–12 education. These students are pushing the school lunch industry to innovate and create nutritious food that appeals to students.
Sam Ryan is the youth liaison in the Office of Communications and Outreach at the U.S. Department of Education.
All photos are by U.S. Department of Education photographer Paul Wood.