Contest Aims to Get Student-Designed Lunches onto School Menus

May 8, 2014

A national cooking competition challenges the taste buds and instincts of teenage cooks to transform one of the most maligned meals of childhood. Shelby County Schools will represent in Washington.

Ask any school kid to point out the biggest problem with the American educational system and they'll likely point to the school cafeteria. Nutrition advocates want to change that. 

Finding new and exciting recipes for kids is what inspired a national high school cooking contest called Cooking Up Change. Sara Porter, with the Chicago-based Healthy Schools Campaign, says that you can give kids healthy options, "but it doesn’t really matter if the kids aren’t eating the food, so in order to bring them along in the process, this idea of having students create recipes and really have a voice in what they’re seeing in the cafeteria is something really exciting and that’s what Cooking Up Change is all about.”

That brings us to an industrial-sized kitchen at L'Ecole Culinaire in Cordova. Students from eight Shelby County High Schools are wearing chef jackets and hats. They’re racing against the clock.

A barbecue chicken salad is Craigmont High School’s entry. From Northside, a chicken and black bean flatbread. One team offers stuffed bell peppers, another, a barbecue chicken pizza drizzled in Ranch dressing.

Sounds good, but what about healthy? Well, the rules are pretty strict. The toughest one: no salt. And each meal has to clock in at under 700 calories. The ingredients have to be staples of a cafeteria pantry. Then there are technical limitations. They can’t use fryers, blenders or food processors, because -- well, lunch ladies don’t use them either.

As the competition food is being plated, the head honcho enters the kitchen.

Students prepare a Salisbury Steak for plating.

  Anthony Geraci is Director of Nutrition Services for Shelby County Schools. In the world of lunchroom food, Geraci is up there with Salisbury Steak. His innovations for Baltimore’s school system were even the subject of a documentary film.

He’s already made big changes in Memphis, including free breakfasts, lunches and after-school snacks for every student, and building greenhouses and vegetable gardens at schools as part of a seed-to-table nutritional program.

But here’s the best news for culinary arts students.

“Our vision, our goal here is within two years we want to have an entirely kid developed menu cycle," Geraci says. "Every item on our menu, every day, will have come from the imagination of children. That changes the game.”

Sara Porter of Cooking Up Change tells me that teenage palettes have distinct regional preferences. In California, kid chefs like fish tacos and different salsas. In Chicago, they like comfort foods. In Houston and Memphis, it’s Barbecue.

“There’s quite a variety across the board, but the number one lesson we learned was that spice really comes across," Porter says. "Spicy, sweet, tangy, sour. They want lots of flavor.”

Guraci wants Memphis kids to work with what he calls the "great Southern super-foods" like sweet potatoes and greens. But first, he’s got to get them hooked on "real" food.

“We’ve successfully raised a generation of kids who think that fruit is a flavor," he says. "It has nothing to do with food. We’ve got to re-teach and then give them the creative space to do their own interpretations of that."

A lime garlic chicken wrap with a zucchini potato bake and a pear dish for dessert was the judges' pick this year. The team, from Memphis Health Careers Academy, will compete in Washington DC at the U.S. Department of Education. Their recipe could soon be served in schools nationwide.

Until then, team member Moriah Hampton says the dish is still missing one key ingredient.

“We have to come up with something extravagant to call it,” Hampton says.