- The Washington Times - Friday, June 3, 2016

It’s a challenge worthy of television: Teenagers from around the country will compete Monday to make the tastiest, most nutritious meal for the ninth annual Cooking Up Change high school national competition at the U.S. Department of Education.

The contestants must meet stringent guidelines on calorie and nutritional guidelines in whipping up an entree and two side dishes. And the cost of the meal cannot exceed one dollar.

It’s a tall — er, short — order, but as in years past, the Cooking Up Change aims to reframe how schoolchildren view nutrition and feed themselves. The contest is conducted by the Healthy Schools Campaign, a Chicago-based nonprofit.

Chef Kwame Onwuachi from Bravo’s “Top Chef” will serve as a judge of the young cooks from Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Detroit and elsewhere vying to be the top chef of the day. Education Secretary John B. King Jr. will wish the competitors good luck to kick off the contest.

Mr. Onwuachi, who will open The Shaw Bijou in the District in August, said he looks forward to seeing how the young contestants create healthy — and tasty — dishes at such a low-cost price point with “no added salt or sugar. They have to use herbs and spices to flavor things.”

Having grown up on Creole and Cajun cuisine, Mr. Onwuachi believes it’s important for young people to learn about healthy food and set about dietary habits that will see them through the rest of their lives. Childhood obesity, he observed, has quadrupled over the last 30 years, with fast food being far too easy and cheap to obtain.

“Getting kids excited about health food is a step in the right direction,” he said.

As many as 30 students forming a total of 10 teams will work together Monday to fashion their meals for national bragging rights: The winning teams’ recipes will be prepared for Congress and will appear in the students’ school cafeterias for the 2016-2017 school year. No teams from the D.C. area are competing this year.

Chef Dan Giusti will sit alongside Mr. Onwuachi to judge the competition.

A native of the District, Mr. Giusti recently left his position as head chef of the world-renowned Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark, to open a school food program in Connecticut called Brigaid. He said it is paramount to talk to young people about the food they are served at school, both to gauge its healthfulness and to see how it might be improved.

“No young people are saying, ‘I want to get into school food service.’ We need to get more chefs thinking about it,” Mr. Giusti said. “If more chefs were thinking about this every day, a lot more recipes would be developed. So the idea of young people already understanding those challenges and thinking about it critically is huge. And I aspire to get young chefs to do this.”

Brigaid’s mission is to get professional chefs into school kitchens to help reform food service from a repetitive, often unhealthy model and move toward a more fulfilling, nutritious experience.

“It’s no one’s fault, there’s just not enough resources in the school food service setup to allow anybody to really look at something and say, ‘Yeah, let’s rethink that,’” Mr. Giusti said.

He believes that part of the problem is that school lunchtime is too brief and antisocial. Kids are often told where they can sit. Some lunch periods are only 22 minutes or less. Mr. Giusti, who is of Italian heritage, points to how it was inculcated in him that dining is about feeding the belly while nourishing the soul — and part of the reason he pursued cooking as a career.

“The way I see it is that school lunch is traditionally that free period where you get to sit down with your friends and talk, have a good time, eat,” he said. “Everyone talks about the nutritious [aspect] of school food, but nobody talks about just being a boost for your well-being, your spirt, your morale.”

That camaraderie, he said, ultimately will help young people appreciate cuisine even more.

“You can teach kids to be professional all you want, but they’re still going to want to sit down and talk to” their peers, he said.

Mr. Onwuachi concurs, saying that young consumers cannot know what to put into their bodies until they are better educated.

“You can’t really do better until you know better,” he said, adding that choices on feeding oneself often come down to cost.

“This food item in the grocery store is $2.99 as opposed to $10.99; you’re paying for quality. Good food costs money,” he said. “I think starting at a young age is very important, and informing these young minds [for] when they” become adults.

“If these students are able to come up with good ideas, it’s very encouraging,” added Mr. Giusti. “Wow, you were able to make that for $1.35, and it fits all the nutritional guidelines? It just shows people, yes, you can do it. So I’m excited to see what they come up with.”

• Eric Althoff can be reached at twt@washingtontimes.com.

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