Analysis

Students Serve Healthy, Delicious School Lunches to U.S. Senators

Event celebrates creative meals, highlights the need for strong child nutrition legislation

Sen. Pat Roberts tastes healthy school food options© The Pew Charitable Trusts

Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS) of the U.S. Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee tastes a barbecue chicken pizza quesadilla that was part of a prize-winning healthy school lunch created by students from South High School in Wichita.

High school students from across the country donned chef’s coats and served their award-winning recipes to U.S. senators this month during a lunch celebrating the Cooking up Change competition. The event and related meetings with members of Congress and their staffs gave the teenagers an opportunity to contribute to the discussion about national school meal policy as federal lawmakers debate child nutrition legislation.

Cooking up Change challenges participating students to create delicious meals that meet the cost and nutritional requirements of school lunches. In the process, they learn about healthy eating and expand their schools’ repertoires of crowd-pleasing recipes. The cook-off held its national finals at the U.S. Department of Education, and the student chefs, winners of local competitions around the country, then shared their recipes and views on school nutrition policy. While everyone was enjoying lunch, the students talked with policymakers about how food served in school cafeterias can and should be healthy and appealing, and encouraged them to pass a child nutrition bill this year that supports schools and kids’ health.

For Chinue Yang, a student at Harding High School in St. Paul, Minnesota, the opportunity to compete for the national title and discuss the need for nutritious school food was so important that he missed his high school graduation ceremony to travel to Washington for the event. Yang explained that with the right tools and training, schools can prepare food that is healthy and delicious, and his team’s lunch was proof of that.

Healthy school food© The Pew Charitable Trusts

The Wilmer-Hutchins High School team from Dallas serves a side dish of steamed and chilled green beans with cherry tomatoes at the Cooking up Change lunch. The students seasoned their vegetables with garlic pepper instead of salt to enhance the flavors while staying within the sodium limits for school meals.

Tips from the chefs

When asked about their inspiration for healthier lunches and what improvements they would like to see in school meal programs, students had the best interest of future generations at heart.

“I wanted to be part of the change by providing schools a healthy, balanced meal, because my generation is affected by so many chronic diseases,” said Tochtli Espinoza of Santee Education Complex in Los Angeles.

Research shows that the availability of healthy school lunches improves kids’ eating habits. With this in mind, the teams often had to get creative to enhance the flavors in their meals without sacrificing nutritional quality.

“We used orange juice instead of orange sauce for the coleslaw to make it healthier and took off the jelly from our dessert,” said Katelynn Lewis, of Golightly Education Center in Detroit.  

Other strategies included trying different cooking techniques.

“We had to omit the salt to make [our meal] healthier, but roasting the vegetables is healthy and enhances the flavor,” said Anne Hardy, of Apollo High School in Owensboro, Kentucky.

Such lessons, which are reinforced daily in school cafeterias across the country, help students learn to make healthy choices throughout their lives. The Cooking up Change winners hope their representatives in Congress will continue to support this critical part of kids’ education.

"I wish that I had more that I could say to [lawmakers] and more time with them,” Rachel Hunter of Apollo High School told Gray TV. “But the time that I did have, I felt like I got my message across."

Healthy school food© The Pew Charitable Trusts

Students from Valley High School in Orange County, California, talk about their Moroccan-themed school lunch with Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), ranking member of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee.

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