By Anna Boisseau
Public school students across Chicago had special choices on their lunch menu last Thursday: a Cajun chicken lettuce wrap, roasted corn relish, and peach and yogurt pizza, all invented by four peers in the culinary program at George Washington High School. The young chefs won the city-wide Cooking Up Change competition put on by the Healthy Schools Campaign last October.
“The big picture is there is an obesity problem out there that we’re trying to address,” said Guillermo Gomez, the Vice President of Urban Affairs with the Healthy Schools Campaign. He said he sees the Cooking Up Change as a way to innovate school meals. “The student voice is very important. If we want to create healthier menus, then we should also get participation from the students.”
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Student chef Neidy Mejia said her team used their lunch periods to come up with recipes for the competition. She said it was difficult because they “had to make a dish on about a dollar and couldn’t add any salt or sugar.”
The cooks competed against 15 teams from other schools to create tasty, yet healthy options on a budget that could reasonably be included on a future CPS menu. They will now advance to a national competition in Washington D.C. in June.
According to Gomez, the winning students will have a chance to speak with their legislators about school menus. “We are firm believers that by getting the student voice, it’s a key voice for the school district,” Gomez said. “We thought that by doing this innovative approach of having students prepare healthy recipes…that everyone would win.”
In addition to delivering the winning meal in local schools, CPS celebrated the students in a banquet at their high school. Their parents, local politicians and representatives from the USDA were among those in attendance.
Claudia Perez, a George Washington High School student, said it was a big deal for her school to get positive attention. “People think bad about our school. They don’t really know the good that goes on in our school,” she said. “So I think it’s a good way to let them know that it’s not just a bad school.”
Her friend Carla Plascencia agreed. “It’s a honor to be recognized because we really haven’t won anything like that.”
Gomez said the long term goal of Cooking Up Change is to incorporate healthier recipes on public schools’ daily menus.
But Plascencia said Thursday’s menu was food she wouldn’t normally eat. “I go towards pizza more,” she said.
Other students at George Washington seemed to agree with Plascencia. Pizza and hot dogs were still the order of the day.