Blog | June 25, 2018

"Cooking up Change" Student Culinarians Turn School Chow Into Mouth-Watering, Eye-Catching Healthy Meals

Mission: Readiness member helps judge national finals of contest for high school culinary students

By Major General (Ret.) Jeffrey E. Phillips, U.S. Army

“Are you saying that you cannot add any salt of any kind?,” asked the executive chef of a top-20 Washington, DC, restaurant as he grasped the rigor imposed on student chefs in the annual Cooking up Change 2018 national finals on June 11.

The annual contest sponsored by the Healthy Schools Campaign “challenges teams of high school culinary students to create a healthy school meal on a tight budget while meeting high standards for nutrition, taste, presentation and originality – no easy task,” according to the contest leaflet.

Six high school teams competed at the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, having triumphed over regional competition: the teams were from Boston; Orange County, California; Chicago; Houston; Dallas; and Troy, Alabama. The meal was lunch – a main course, vegetable, dessert, an apple and some mini carrots. The “no easy task” was adherence to a caloric budget of 550-650 calories, no more than 1080 milligrams of sodium, no added salt or sugar, with low fat, a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains and “quality” protein (which could be vegetable in nature).

Cooking up Change Orange County
An Asian-themed winning entry, the Orange County team’s first-place lunch featured Chinese orange chicken, spicy Thai slaw, and momo otsu mugi, complemented by a rousing team presentation that captivated the 14 judges evaluating six Cooking up Change student culinary entries at the U.S. Department of Education, June 11. (Major General Jeff Phillips photo of judge’s sampling plate.)

Ingredients came solely from a list of some 150 items commonly available to schools, and cooking techniques unavailable in the school kitchen were not permitted – no food processing, blending, grills, sous vide; no labor-intensive foods, such as scratch-made breads, etc. No more than five preparation steps were permitted these young chefs.

And … each lunch could not cost more than $1.40.

Representing Mission: Readiness, part of Council for a Strong America, I was one of 14 judges. The judges panel included several government officials, executive chefs, education sector leaders, a pediatrician, leaders from education-related associations, as well as a senior representative from event sponsor Southwest Airlines.

The food was splendid. Even more striking to me was the enthusiasm and vision of these kids; many of them, as they introduced themselves and their meals, cited the importance of producing healthy, attractive food that their fellow young diners liked, reducing waste and malnutrition.

Evaluating the six entries (menus on the Cooking up Change website), I saw for myself how these accomplished and even ingenious student culinarians converted rigid government requirements, commonly procured groceries and school-grade kitchen gear into delicious food. In fact, one chef-judge said he’d consider introducing a dessert – the Chicago team’s pear crisp – into his restaurant!

Each judge had their favorites; mine was Houston’s pinto bean and tomato soup, created by Jordyn Moore, whose beaming grandmother watched the judging with other team friends and family from the visitor’s area.

Cooking up Change Houston
The Cooking up Change Houston team’s zucchini pasta with Cajun chicken, pinto bean and tomato soup, and bananas and yogurt lunch won raves; the soup was especially piquant and tasty. (Major General Jeff Phillips photo.)

And yes, I’ll “second” the pear crisp. Unique and flavorfully explosive.

The food was splendid. Even more striking to me was the enthusiasm and vision of these kids; many of them, as they introduced themselves and their meals, cited the importance of producing healthy, attractive food that their fellow young diners liked, reducing waste and malnutrition.

Once we judges had tasted the meals from mini judging plates and had inspected the appearance of the actual meal on its school tray, we went into a private room and discussed our evaluations. The performance of one team captured top place: Orange County, Calif. The team had burst out at their introduction in a polished and animated presentation, and then captured our taste buds with an Asian-themed meal of Chinese orange chicken, spicy Thai slaw, and momo otsu mugi, a type of dumpling with rice.

But each team presented a wonderful meal and superb teamwork; to get to Washington, supported by teachers, parents and friends, they had mastered an impressive degree of organization and collaboration.

The opportunity to help these brilliant young culinarians, and to support Mission: Readiness and Council for a Strong America, was a treat too delectable to let pass.

The honor – and frankly the delight – of judging the Cooking up Change contest was my entrée into Mission: Readiness volunteer activities. Mission: Readiness taps the experience and insights of retired admirals and generals to strengthen national security “by ensuring kids stay in school, stay fit and stay out of trouble.”

Over the years, I’ve developed an interest in the culinary arts and am taking French cuisine lessons myself. I’ve had a hand in a few food operations and even oversaw the turnaround to delicious profitability of the community club restaurant at Fort Stewart, Georgia, while senior commander there. The opportunity to help these brilliant young culinarians, and to support Mission: Readiness and Council for a Strong America, was a treat too delectable to let pass. I look forward to more such chances for contributions to our precious national resource – our kids!

Major General (Ret.) Jeffrey E. Phillips, U.S. Army, is the Executive Director of the Reserve Officers Association.

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