Six teams of high school students from across the country treated Capitol Hill staff to fruit- and vegetable-packed Caribbean crunch salad, chicken with orange-infused brown rice, North Carolina-style pulled chicken BBQ sandwiches, and yogurt parfaits for lunch this week.


The event was the culmination of a nationwide contest, Cooking up Change, which challenges students to create delicious, easy-to-prepare dishes that meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture meal standards as well as the food reimbursement rate of around $1 per meal.

“I wanted to get involved because I don’t eat the food at school,” said Chicagoan Claudia Ramirez, adding that she finds her school’s hot lunch, well, nasty. A panel of judges at the USDA, which included Karen Duncan, wife of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and Christie Vilsack, wife of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, as well as a number of chefs and business leaders, gave Ramirez’s team an honorary mention for “Soup of Sunshine” this week.

The finalists, from Chicago, Denver, Jacksonville, Washington D.C., St. Louis, and Winston-Salem, are working to prove that it’s possible to serve healthier school food — that students will actually eat — within the constraints of a federal program that is increasingly under fire for contributing to the childhood obesity epidemic. (Hill staffers devoured the food from school lunch trays at the briefing.)

Jackonsonville’s team took the grand prize with a Caribbean-inspired beef rib salad with Moroccan rice and a sweet potato corn bread muffin.

“Cooking up Change spotlights student creativity and talent,” says Rochelle Davis, president and CEO of the Healthy Schools Campaign, which coordinates the contest. “It also gives students a real voice in shaping the future of school food, something that affects their health and learning so directly on a daily basis.”

In addition to national recognition, and a chance to impact school food policy, the students got to tour the White House and meet with executive chef Cristeta Comerford.

“It’s thrilling. I never thought I would get to go to the White House,” says Ramirez, who had never been to Washington, DC. “I really like it here.”

School lunch providers will serve the new recipes to local districts, even statewide in some cases.

“These students blew us away with their ingenuity,” said Chris Ely, co-founder of Applegate Farms, a sponsor of the competition. “Their culinary talents are paving the way for a healthier, brighter future for school meals.”


Images, courtesy of the Healthy Schools Campaign, are of Claudia Ramirez and her team from Chicago and Caribbean Crunch Salad.