What We Can Learn from Student-Inspired School Meals

June 11, 2015

Nine teams of talented culinary chefs spent a few days with Healthy Schools Campaign in Washington, D.C. On Monday, those teams competed in the Cooking up Change National Finals, where the team from Houston took first place with their menu of Cowboy Cajun Chicken Lollipop, Twisted Texas Cabbage and Collard Greens, and Pineapple Tart.

But Cooking up Change is about much more than crowning a national champion; it’s about elevating student voices in the national conversation about school food. In addition to the cooking competition, these student chefs took their message to a Capitol Hill briefing on school food, a Senate tasting event and individual meetings with their Congressional representatives to speak about the importance of healthy school food.

These student chefs show us all that within the constraints that schools face every day, it is possible to create healthy meals that appeal to students using whole grains, low-sodium and plentiful fruits and vegetables. Show us someone who says kids just won’t eat low-sodium food, and we’ll show you the team from Houston who used Cajun seasoning to flavor their dish when they couldn’t use salt. Show us someone who says whole wheat pasta doesn’t hold up, and we’ll show you the team from Washington, D.C., and their Yummy Lo Mein that uses whole wheat spaghetti. Show us someone who says kids won’t eat healthy food, and we’ll show you students chefs whose friends couldn’t get enough of their healthy and delicious school meals.

As the students can attest, creating healthy meals that their classmates enjoy is not easy. These winning recipes are the result of a lot of hard work, creativity and support. With the Child Nutrition Act soon up for reauthorization and when so much of what we hear about school food focuses on challenges, these students remind us to focus on solutions and to not waiver in our support for high nutrition standards. The health and success of our nation’s children demands nothing less.

The student-designed meals from Cooking up Change have been added to school menus across the country, including the districts where they were created. This is a testament to the students’ skill in creating recipes that meet real-life constraints, and their ability to dream up healthy meals that their peers enjoy.

When so much of what we hear about school food is about what we can’t do, these student chefs are focusing on what we can do. And what we can do is create delicious and healthy school meals that students enjoy.