Meet the Amazing Students Cooking Up Change in School Cafeterias!

The winning meal from Westside High School in Houston, Texas: Cowboy Cajun Lollipop, Twisted Texas Cabbage and Collard Greens, and Pineapple Tart.

Courtesy of Healthy Schools Campaign

How many times have you heard your students (or your teens) complain about their school’s cafeteria food? The truth is, 30 million students rely on school lunches to fuel their learning daily, and many of them use not-so-nice words to describe their meals. Bland, cold, tasteless, gross. Sadly, many schools lack the resources and funding to provide fresh and flavorful meals, but they also lack a very important component in the creation of those meals. And that missing piece is: student voices.

On Monday, we had the privilege of serving as a judge at the National Cooking Up Change competition, which was held at the Department of Education in Washington, D.C. This contest, the brilliant brainchild of the Healthy Schools Campaign, combines nutrition education, life skills, and advocacy, giving teams of high school culinary students an opportunity to show (not tell!) that school food can taste great and be good for you.

Before we even get into the specifics of the meals they made, which were judged on originality, taste, and appearance, you’ve got to know that these kids are up against more challenges than any five-star chef you see competing on Bravo or The Food Network. Working with guidance from their culinary instructors and dieticians, they must:

1. Stick to a tight budget  (no small feat, as the federal government spends less on each child’s school lunch than you probably do on a cup of coffee!)

2. Meet national nutrition standards (on everything from sodium levels to serving sizes)

3. Use only commonly available school food service ingredients and equipment (we saw the list, and trust us: it’s very limiting)

As we tasted the creations of each of the 9 regional teams—ranging from BBQ Chicken Pinwheels to Peachin’ Empanadas—the message came across loud and clear: Teens today demand more from their school food. And the best part? On Tuesday, they took that message to Capitol Hill, where they served their meals at a House briefing and spoke to staffers about the importance of healthy school food. They also held a tasting on the Senate side of the Capitol on Wednesday, lending their voices to an important conversation surrounding the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act in September.  Pretty cool, huh?

Congratulations to the winning team from Westside High School in Houston, Texas, and to all of the student chefs who participated. Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll be featuring recipes from each of the 9 teams. So check back soon…when so much of the conversation about school food centers on what can't be done, these students are proving what can be changed for the better.