"Cooking up Change" is a competition for high school culinary students that challenges them to create school menu items that are healthy, compliant with USDA guidelines and within a budget of a mere $1.40 per meal. It's the same kind of budget constraint that food services programs in public schools face every day.
Updated 4/1/2015, 1:17 p.m.: A big "congratulations" goes out to Westside High School Students Jose Acosta, Jalien Noel and Alejandra Olivares (see photo below). They won the competition with their Cajun Chicken Drumstick with Black Bean Hoppin' John, Texas Cabbage and Greens and a Pineapple Dessert.
The Houston competition is this Saturday, March 28, and seven teams from four Houston Independent School District campuses are participating. This year, the teams hail from Barbara Jordan, Davis, Milby and Westside high schools.
The winning team will have a lot of excitement ahead, because it will be sent on an all-expenses-paid trip to the national competition in June at the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C. A version of the winning recipes will also be served at HISD cafeterias during the 2015-2016 school year.
This is the second year that HISD has participated. Chef Michael Bargas, an Aramark employee who is also the acting executive chef for HISD, says, "The biggest difference this year is knowing a lot more about the program, how the national competition was run and what [the judges] are looking for. We have more info now on what's important for the presentation part, which has a lot to do with it."
Chef Roshni Gurnani, a Hell's Kitchen contestant and winner on Food Network's show Chopped, is one of the instructors at Art Institute of Houston and will also be a celebrity judge for the Houston competition. She hopes that it will emphasize to kids and attendees that healthy food can also be tasty. "We want to get the younger generation into cooking healthy. The mentality is that cooking healthy means it won't taste good. As a judge, I'll be looking for creativity. I do a lot of work with WIC and single moms on how to cook on a budget, and I know it can be done!"
How do school food programs get by on such a small per-person budget? "We do have the advantage of economy of scale," explains Bargas. "It's a parameter we just live with, and we've developed a diverse group of dishes within the HISD menu system. There's gumbo and rice, fruit, vegetable pizza, Buffalo chicken wraps and a variety of salads. A lot of people aren't aware that the school meals are not only healthy but interesting and diverse."
Gurnani has some advice that home cooks on a budget can use, too: "Have more vegetables than protein or starches. Don't be afraid to use different things in recipes if you have other things in your pantry. Recipes are only guidelines!"
The fun starts at 9 a.m. this Saturday at the Art Institute of Houston at 4140 Southwest Freeway. The competition part runs until 12:30 p.m., and the awards ceremony is from 1 to 2 p.m. The public is encouraged to attend, and there will be tastings, too.