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Cooking Up Change $1 at a Time


On Monday, June 9, Washington, D.C. will host the national finals of the Cooking up Change competition, a program of the Healthy Schools Campaign. The contest challenges students from high schools across the country to create nutritious school meals for about $1 per meal. Students work with limited ingredients and tight budgets to create the kinds of meals that, hopefully, one day you’ll find in more school cafeterias.

The goal of the competition is to challenge student chefs to think about how to create cheaper, healthier meals for schools that kids enjoy eating, as well as to highlight the need for more resources for school meals. Teams are required to meet budgetary constraints, use only ingredients commonly found in school cafeterias, and meet school nutritional standards.

The national finals will pit the 28 winners of local competitions in ten cities against one another as they face new constraints, ingredients, and challenges. The winning student chefs showed off their creativity by creating inventive, healthy meals like the “Kickin’ Taco, Zesta Fiesta Salad, and Yummy Tummy Bananas,” from Lily, Gustavo and Josue from Valley High School in Orange County, Calif.. Many students used the competition as an opportunity to exhibit plays on local cuisine. The team from Houston, for example, won by featuring their “Lonestar Chicken Chili Sub,” incorporating the Tex-Mex flavors popular in the area. “We all grew up in Texas and wanted something Texas was known for, which was chili,” said Andrew W., a member of the team.

As school nutrition has become a larger issue on the national stage, the qualifying events have drawn nutrition experts and policymakers to serve as judges. Karen Duncan, wife of Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan, serves as an honorary chair of the competition, along with Christopher Kennedy, founder of Top Box Foods, and Amy Rule, First Lady of Chicago.

The program has been an excellent forum for making student voices heard in the crowded school food debate. The finalists will take their voices straight to the Capitol – the meals the finalists are cooking up will be served in the cafeteria in the U.S. Capitol Building, followed by a briefing with federal lawmakers. After all, the students are grappling with the same issues as lawmakers: how to get healthy, tasty meals into our schools at reasonable cost. According to Cari Smith, one of the 2010 winners of the competition, the students have a simple message for legislators: “change really can happen if we all help it along.”

First Lady Michelle Obama recently wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times about the importance of proper nutrition in schools, and the tough regulatory battles she and others are fighting to get that nutrition to kids. “The last thing we can do right now is play politics with our kids’ health,” said Mrs. Obama.

Cooking up Change puts the debate into innovative, fun, and educational terms. Change really can happen, and these kids are doing something about it. 

You can learn more about the event here, and if you’ll be in Washington, D.C. on the June 9, you can register to attend the final competition here

Alex Leedom authored this report.