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Students ‘Cooking Up Change’ in spite of lax nutrition requirements

Cooking Up Change participants are challenged to create a new school lunch option for Chicago Public Schools and are judged by a panel of professional chefs. | Provided by Healthy Schools Campaign

If Chicago Public School students participating in the Cooking Up Change competition do well on Wednesday, they won’t be traveling to Washington D.C. for a final culinary contest.

That’s partly due to the Trump Administration’s rollback of nutritional requirements in school lunches.

States are no longer required to meet the same standards for whole grains, lower sodium and low-fat flavored milks offered in school lunch programs that were initiated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture during former President Barack Obama’s tenure.

Since 2011, Cooking Up Change contest finalists from around the country would go to the nation’s capitol to face off against their peers and meet their local legislators to talk about the importance of healthy options in schools.

But the Trump Administration has lack of appetite for a discussion around school lunch nutrition, organizers say.

This year, however, there will be a designated day in the spring for the Cooking Up Change winning dishes to be served across the country as a statement to advocate for healthy school meals, said Sara Porter, vice president of external affairs for Healthy Schools Campaign, the non-profit that runs the competition.

Porter said requirements have also been loosened this year to allow more schools to participate in the contest.

Chicago Cooking Up Change participants are enrolled Chicago Public Schools Career and Technical Education Culinary program. | Provided by Healthy Schools Campaign
Chicago Cooking Up Change participants are enrolled Chicago Public Schools Career and Technical Education Culinary program. | Provided by Healthy Schools Campaign

In Chicago, student competitors are enrolled in CPS’ Career and Technical Education Culinary program and winners will have their meals served at all CPS schools.

For Wednesday’s competition at the Bridgeport Art Center, teams from seven different schools will prepare lunch options using the same ingredients and equipment.

Teams must adhere to nutrition rules –– no added salt or sugar –– and to a budget of $1.40 per plate. A panel of judges will be selecting the winners.

There is also a breakfast category in this year’s competition, requiring students to whip up a main dish that can be eaten without utensils with a fruit and a vegetable side dish. The winners for the breakfast contest will be decided by guests at Wednesday’s event.

The winning team members will receive $1,000 scholarships to the Washburne Culinary and Hospitality Institute at Kennedy-King College.

Julissa Villegas, a 17-year-old senior at Benito Juarez High School, said her team has come up with a new version of chicken and waffles that trades in the waffle for French toast and spices up both the chicken and maple syrup dipping sauce with cayenne pepper.

“In the world, there is a lot of obesity,” Villegas said. “We want to have a healthy meal in school but that is also delicious and tastes good.”

Nyah Griffin, who was on the first winning team from Chicago Vocational Career Academy in 2007, is returning as a judge and chef mentor.

“It’s more so about being passionate about the food,” said Griffin, manager of food service at Mercy Home for Boys and Girls. “The competition can be hectic and it’s stressful, but if it’s about the food at the end of the day, everything else will fall into place.”

John Colletta, executive chef and managing partner of Quartino Ristorante and Wine Bar, is judging for the first time on Wednesday.

“It’s actually remarkable to see the things they’ve [students] come up with their limited background and limited exposure,” Colletta said.