- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Teenagers across the country are taking control of their school lunches, and high schoolers from seven states traveled to the nation’s capital Monday to create healthier cafeterias in the 2015 Cooking Up Change competition.

For the first time, D.C. public school students participated in the event. The team, with Ay Okuleye and Tatyanna Clark from School Without Walls and Dion Harrison from Eastern Senior High School, entered its healthy lo mein recipe. Eight other teams from states as far as Michigan and California competed to see who has the most delicious, well-rounded meal.

The challenge lay in making the meal healthy and savory while meeting U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines and a budget of about $1 per meal.

“Dietary and budgetary restrictions are things that we don’t normally think about because we’re kids and we don’t do the shopping ourselves,” said Dion Harrison, an 11th-grader. “It’s something we don’t keep in mind usually.”

Childhood obesity has more than doubled in the past 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At the same time, one-fifth of American children live in households that struggle to put bread on the table, according to the Share Our Strength organization, which works to end childhood hunger.

“I hope that people realize how important lunch is,” 11th-grader Tatyanna Clark said. “There are many children across the country in schools where lunch is their most important meal of the day because they may not get another meal at home. It has to be healthy because childhood obesity is a problem too.”

The Healthy Schools Campaign aims to make lunches more nutritious for a population where childhood obesity and hunger coexist, and to include young people in the national conversation about these issues.

“To a large extent, it’s the first time that an adult has actually asked [the students] what they think about something that matters to them,” said Rochelle Davis, president and CEO of the Healthy Schools Campaign. “I think teenagers in general don’t often get asked by adults in a respectful way what they feel about something that impacts them — particularly something as intimate as the food they eat every day.”

Many of the schools competing have high dropout rates, but each student who has participated in the Cooking Up Change competition has gone on to graduate.

“It really has a big impact on the students that participate, both in terms of developing a lot of the skills that are so important in being successful — planning ahead, teamwork, communication,” Ms. Davis said. “It’s been really important for them in terms of their school connectedness and feeling inspired and motivated to complete their education.”

On Monday, the nine teams of competing finalists prepared their prized meals for a panel of judges, including professional chefs, healthy school food advocates and policymakers at the U.S. Department of Education. The winning team is awarded with a trophy, medals and national bragging rights.

The Houston team won, impressing judges with their locally inspired, healthy meal, cowboy Cajun chicken lollipop with twisted Texas cabbage with collard greens and a pineapple tart. The Orange County, California, and Chicago teams came in second and third, respectively.

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