Advocates, Students Challenge Top Chefs to School Food Cook-Off — With a Little Less Lunch Money

June 25, 2010

Wednesday’s episode of Bravo’s “Top Chef” featured a challenge that high
school students nationwide take on each year in the Cooking up Change
healthy cooking contest
, and which food service directors face daily in
schools: to create a healthy, tasty lunch on a tight budget. But the
budget that the students and the food service staff face is much tighter
— about a third of that given to Top Chef contestants. Can the lunches
that Bravo's Top Chefs create stand up to those created by high school
students with an even smaller food allowance?

“The idea was
pretty cool, but I wonder what they would have done if they only had a
dollar like we did,” said Cari Smith, a junior studying culinary arts in
Chicago Public Schools (CPS). Cari and her classmates at Tilden  high school won the third annual Cooking up Change
healthy cooking contest with a lunch that can be prepared for about a
dollar.

Bravo's Top Chefs were given a budget of $2.60 per meal,
close to the amount that schools receive to serve a lunch but nearly
three times the amount that schools are actually able to spend on
ingredients. After accounting for overhead, labor and the myriad
expenses of running a food program, the amount that most food service
directors have to work with is less than a dollar. (In large urban
districts, it's generally closer to $0.70.)

“I'm thrilled to see
chefs of this stature take on school food,” said Rochelle Davis,
founding executive director of the Healthy Schools Campaign, the
not-for-profit organization that hosts Cooking up Change. “I'd love to
see the contestants turn the competition up a notch and take on the
challenge of creating these lunches with the same constraints that the
students face in Cooking up Change — really the challenges that school
staff face every day in trying to serve nutritious, appealing meals to
our nation's schoolchildren.”

In Cooking up Change, teams from
across the U.S. have met the budget challenge while creating meals that
exceed high nutrition standards and only use ingredients available to
food service. Winning meals from the contest have been served in schools
across the country and in the U.S. House of Representatives cafeteria,
which sold out of the meal Cari and her classmates designed. The meal
has also been integrated into the lunch menu for Chicago Public Schools,
where it is regularly prepared on a real school budget and wins a
thumbs-up from other high school students.

How does this meal
compare with the Top Chefs' champion meal? 

Cooking up Change winning meal:

Chicken-vegetable jambalaya
Cucumber salad
Jalapeno cornbread

Top Chef winning meal:

Pork tacos
Black bean cake with crispy sweet potato
Roasted corn salad
Caramelized sweet potato
sherbet. 

“No matter how talented or determined you are, there's
only so much you can do with a dollar,” said Davis. “Schools need more
money for better food. Seeing the students in Cooking up Change pull
together lunch on such a shoestring really brings the issue home. Giving
schools more than two dollars for ingredients like we saw on Top Chef
would make an unbelievable difference in their ability to provide the
kind of fresh, healthy food that supports kids' health and learning.”

Davis
has extended an invitation to the contestants of Top Chef to bring
their culinary prowess to a cook-off with the aspiring chefs of Cooking
up Change.

“It's a friendly challenge,” she said. “But it's also
a chance for the chefs to stand alongside our nation's students and say
that one dollar is not enough.”

If the chefs accept, Cari and
her teammates may be willing to reveal some veteran tips.

“Plan
out a budget and stick with your budget,” she advised. “And pay
attention to the nutrition guidelines. You have to be really creative.”

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