From The Chicago Bureau:
Healthy food and student advocacy were in the spotlight as 16 teams of students from the Chicago Public Schools faced off in “Cooking Up Change,” a culinary contest styled after Bravo TV’s “Top Chef” competition. The prizes: scholarships and a trip to Washington, D.C.
“It’s all about making sure the students have their voices in this national discussion that we are having about school food,” said Rochelle Davis, founder, CEO, and president of Chicago-based Healthy Schools Campaign, the nonprofit group that organizes the annual contest.
According to Davis, school food reform had its start in Chicago where 85 percent of CPS students now receive free or reduced-price lunch. This is significantly higher than the nationwide average of 71 percent, according to Washington, D.C.’s Food Research and Action Center.
The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s National School Lunch Program serves more than 31 million children every year.
And yet poor nutrition among the nation’s young people persists. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that over one-third of all children are overweight or obese, a major contributing factor to diabetes. In 2009 the CDC found that 208,000 people under the age of 20 had diabetes in the United States. According to the American Diabetes Association, the cost of diabetes in 2012 was $245 billion.
Davis said the Cooking up Change contest is a way to begin changing youth attitudes about eating healthy. After weeks of honing their skills and refining recipes, over 100 CPS students worked in teams last Thursday to present a full meal to a panel of judges at the Bridgeport Art Center’s chic Skyline Loft.
The winning team, from John Marshall Metropolitan High School located in Chicago’s impoverished West Side, will have its entry – which comprised a main course of Chicken Fajita “Cupcakes” in whole-wheat tortilla cups, Black Bean “Sprinkles” salad with orange-cilantro vinaigrette, and Chili-roasted Apple Parfait – added to the CPS lunch menu. The team will also get a trip to Washington, D.C. to compete in the national finals in June 2015.
While in D.C., Marshall students will join winning teams from 9 other cities – Houston, Jacksonville, Little Rock, Los Angeles, Memphis, Orange County, Orlando, Wichita and Winston-Salem – to attend a legislative briefing on Capitol Hill where they will serve their winning meals to lawmakers.
But Marshall’s road to the nation’s capitol had its challenges. For the CPS competition, teams were required to stay within a budget typical of most schools, $1 per full meal serving. Furthering the real-world simulation, they could only use ingredients from CPS’s food services provider, Philadelphia-based Aramark. And they were expected to explain the nutritional considerations that went into the recipes.
In prepping for the contest, chef instructors for each team spent a considerable amount of time teaching the kids how to make food taste good while keeping it healthy.
From knife skills to food safety, Willie Chatman, 34, culinary arts instructor at North-Grand High School in Chicago’s West Humboldt Park neighborhood, said that they, “try to impart basic skills to the students.”
He said he helps the students learn how to play with spices and create unique flavor profiles without depending too heavily on salt.
Chatman said he also works with other teachers at the school to create cross-curriculum lessons. For instance, he teamed up with the French language teacher to have the culinary students prepare a French meal. The French students will then have to order the meal in French and will be graded on their language skills during the ordering process.
For Michael Marren, 54, the chef instructor at Theodore Roosevelt High School in the city’s Albany Park community, this was the second year participating in the competition. Last year the school took third place.
Though his team didn’t win the competition, Marren said he was pleased with the lessons his students were gleaning from the experience.
“A lot of the kids have no conception that their lives could be any different from their parents,” he said, noting many of the contestants are from the city’s poorer neighborhoods. This event lets them see a side of the world that they would not otherwise be exposed to, said Marren, referring to the upscale atmosphere of the competition.
Oscar Tenezaca, 18, a senior at Roosevelt, said the program has definitely had an effect on him.
“My first year I was doing bad in school,” said Tenezaca. “But when I got to this program it helped me a lot. I have better grades now, better attendance.”
Tenezaca is not alone in his newfound success. According to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, students who graduate from a career and technical education programs, such as the culinary program at Roosevelt, “are slightly more likely to have enrolled in college and be employed than other CPS graduates.”
Illinois’ Deputy Governor Cristal Thomas, who was involved in the Healthy School Campaign in the past, said she is impressed with how the Cooking Up Change program truly engages students.
“It’s for the students by the students,” she said. “That’s ultimately what’s going to make this sustainable and why we will see real change.”
And real change is precisely what this is all about, said Davis, founder of the program. She said Chicago is the perfect place to start since it has a reputation for leading the way in healthier schools. The work, she said, is one meal at a time.
“Every day when a healthier meal goes out, we consider that a success,” said Davis.
This article was originally published by The Chicago Bureau.