Nine teams of Chicago Public Schools students have been trying to come up with a new lunch that their classmates will like — but it can’t cost more than $1.40 to make.
In its 11th year, the Chicago-created Cooking Up Change competition, part of the Healthy Schools Campaign, challenges city high school students to create delicious school lunches within strict health requirements and price limits.
At that price, students also must to come up with a meal that has between 550 and 650 calories and relies only on fruits, vegetables, and spices for flavor — no salt or sugar. Students also are expected to use only ingredients and equipment commonly available for school food services.
A team of six from Juarez High School settled on chicken parmesan with an apple crisp dessert.
Senior Bernardo Chavez said they had planned to serve a veggie taco. But the team of Latino students decided to challenge themselves by exploring Italian cuisine.
“The most valuable thing it’s taught me is how to be creative and use what’s available,” said Chavez, “It’s a good brain teaser in a way.”
Aspiring pastry chef Abrahm Ortiz, also a senior, said the team’s creation involved “a lot of teamwork and patience.”
But patience what he likes most about baking pastries.
“Once I start cooking I just focus on the cooking, everything else disappears,” said Ortiz.
The winning team of students will have their creation added to the CPS lunch menu. Since 2007, 9.1 million Cooking Up Change meals have been served — 3.9 million of those in Chicago.
The teams will serve their dishes Thursday to hundreds of people at a fundraiser for the Healthy Schools Campaign. Guests will pay $100 each to sample the offerings, talk with the young chefs about their creations and vote on their favorite.
The event starts at 6 p.m. at the Skyline Loft at the Bridgeport Art Center, 1200 W. 35th St. Tickets are $100 and can be purchased by calling the Healthy Schools Campaign office at 312-419-1810. Tickets also will be available at the door.
The Chicago contest kicks off the Cooking Up Change competition nationwide. Winning teams from each state head to Washington, D.C. this summer for the national competition.
Students are expected to present their meals and explain the recipes they chose to chefs from all over the country.
“It gives these students an opportunity to get to know the industry. In the culinary world, they’re faced with challenges that they might see later on in life,” said Hasley Ward, a project manager with the Healthy Schools Campaign. “The end result is something that they really love and they’re proud of.”
Teams competing in D.C., Hasley said, spend a day on Capitol Hill, meeting with policy makers and other influential people. Several past teams have toured the White House.
“The contest gives them some real professional development skills as well as the chance to mix and mingle with new people,” said Ward. “It really forces them to grow up a little bit.”
For many students, like 2015 winner Marshawn Gibson, traveling is a new experience.
“Knowing that we were going to represent our city in D.C. and being able to travel and explore D.C. was pretty amazing,” said Gibson. “I had never left Chicago, so it was a great learning experience.”
Gibson’s team from George Washington High School won the Chicago competition in 2015 with a Cajun chicken lettuce wrap with a side of roasted corn relish and a dessert of peaches and yogurt. The team finished second in the national competition. Last year, Gibson helped judge the Chicago competition.
“I’m fresh out of CPS so I know what the lunch is like, I know what the students are like,” said Gibson. “I wanted to choose the best team to represent Chicago. I know there’s a lot of different creativity that comes with it.”
At North Grand High School, senior Nathaniel Santiago said his team wanted to create an Asian-inspired dish for this year’s competition. But they struggled with the 650-calorie limit. The end result was a chicken teriyaki fried rice dish, with Asian-braised vegetables.
“Our concept stayed the same,” said Santiago.
“The most challenging aspect was having to substitute ingredients,” he added. “The most rewarding part of this is sort of making something out of nothing with very strict guidelines.”