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Local High Schoolers Cooking Up Change For Their Cafeterias

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Chicago Tribune: Young chefs compete to put tasty, nutritious fare on cafeteria menus.

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At lunchtime, the cafeteria at Clemente Community Academy was serving pizza, nachos and french fries. Elsewhere in the school, six students in the culinary arts program were preparing brown-rice-and-chicken stir-fry, vegetable medley and a baked-pear dessert

. Food snobs? Nope. These students, and others from 14 local public high schools, were competing in Cooking Up Change, a healthy cooking contest in which teams were challenged to create nutritious school lunches on a tight budget -- $1 per meal -- and limited ingredients and prep work.

"We want to instill in the next generation the need for healthy cooking," said Rochelle Davis, executive director of the Healthy Schools Campaign, the local nonprofit that advocates for health-related changes in schools and produces this annual event.

Childhood obesity is at an all-time high, with Illinois ranking fourth in the nation. Chicago children have been found to be heavier than those in the rest of the state. While city schools have improved cafeteria food by restricting trans fats and fried foods and requiring healthier vending machine choices, child health advocates say there is still much to do.

"Every school district that receives federal funding has been required to have a wellness policy since 2006," Davis said. What that means for Chicago public schools is that french fries at Clemente are baked, and fruits and vegetables are emphasized.

So is obesity among schoolchildren still a problem? "Oh, yeah," Davis said. Child health advocates want Congress to authorize changes in the Child Nutrition Act, which expired in September. The legislation, renewed every five years, determines school lunch and health policy and reimbursement levels.

It costs an average of $2.92 to prepare and serve a lunch that meets federal nutritional standards, a national study by the School Nutrition Association shows. But federal reimbursement is $2.68.

The cooking contest, while fun for students, highlights the challenge schools face in trying to serve healthy meals on limited budgets. The meals had to contain minimum levels of good stuff, fiber for example, while not exceeding maximum levels of fat or calories, per criteria set by Balanced Choices, the guidelines used by Chicago Public School cafeterias.

Last year's winners -- six juniors from Richards Career Academy -- went to Washington to help fight for the de-greasing of school cafeterias. They also had their meal -- stuffed green peppers, carrot quesadillas, and refrescante salad -- served to more than 40,000 public school students nationwide.

For this year's contest, which took place last week at Salvage One near United Center, student teams were dressed in matching chef's attire. (Orr Career Academy donned black coats and floppy hats.) Granted, there were more gym shoes and earrings than you see on "Top Chef," but the passion was the same. Teen competitors stood at tables crowded with chafing dishes and serving trays as they prepped entrees, which they'd made at their respective schools. Emmanuel Sandoval, a senior and one of last year's winners, showed off his twice-baked shepherd's pies, pear salads and bread pudding.

"I like to cook. I also like the competition," said Sandoval, who plans to attend Washburn Culinary Institute at Kennedy King College.

The teens called out to people who strolled past, insisting they sample their entrées and cookies. Those who stopped to snack on Clemente's stir-fry or Manley Career Academy's peach cobbler cookies seemed happy they did.

"The students get the opportunity to see and do the actual work. They get exposure," said Tilden Career Community High School Chef/Instructor Keith Morris, as junior Aljibri Reed -- who dreams of becoming a chef -- stirred jambalaya.

Of 175 students in his culinary arts program, Morris selected six of the most motivated for this event. Now he watched his students and the judges crowd around a large table in another room like hungry, sequestered jurors. The teams took turns presenting their meals -- on plastic cafeteria trays -- to the panel of local chefs, cooking instructors, school administrators, and one student, Crane High School junior Kemon Williams, whose dislike of onions cost some teams a few points.

While the judges sampled dishes, they grilled the students about preparation and ingredients. "How'd you prepare the collard greens?"

"We sautéed them."

"Sautéed them in what?"

"Vegetable oil."

The students held their own. The judges scored them on the originality, taste and appearance of their dishes.

"The students get to cook. They get to show others what they can do," said Kendall College Chef/Instructor Elaine Sikorski, a judge. "But they also get to think about healthy food choices and then be ambassadors for other students."

In the end, the Tilden team took top honors for its chicken jambalaya, corn bread and apple salad. The best cookie -- cranberry-raisin-walnut -- was baked by Corliss High School.

"This is a real world application of skills learned in the classroom," said Richards' chef/instructor Mark Soltis. "It's an opportunity to learn but also to build self-esteem."

Student/cook Mariely Santiesteban summed it up this way: "There's nothing here as good as this," pointing to the chicken wraps she and her North-Grand High School classmates had made.

"We're changing the idea that healthy food is nasty."

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