Westside Tech students are Cooking Up Change for school lunches

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  • | 4:14 p.m. July 17, 2014
Student Chef Ny-Lene Mendez-JUMBO
Student Chef Ny-Lene Mendez-JUMBO
  • West Orange Times & Observer
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Three students from Westside Tech traveled to Washington, D.C., last month to compete nationally in Cooking Up Change — a culinary contest dedicated to improving the quality of food within Orange County Public Schools while highlighting student talent.

The competition gave students a voice throughout the nation, providing them a platform to put their ideas front and center about healthy and enjoyable school lunches. They brought attention to the challenges of serving wholesome meals and the need for reform in the school food system.

Working within the funding and nutrition guidelines for public schools nationwide, Westside Tech culinary arts students Anfernee Anderson, Ny-Lene Melendez and Matheus DeCarvalho competed against nine other school districts to create a nutritious full-course meal that peers would enjoy. They were accompanied by their culinary instructor, Janet Appleton, and received guidance from Bryan Frick, corporate executive chef, Nestle Corp., and Gary Jones, culinary dietary specialist, Disney — along with other dietitians from OCPS Food and Nutrition Services.

“We were so fortunate to be able to participate in Cooking Up Change,” Appleton said in an OCPS press release. “My students benefitted in many ways that I hadn’t really thought of ahead of time. They practiced teamwork and saw the importance of planning and time-management. The students were amazed at how specific the portion sizes and nutritional requirements for school menus were.”

According to the United States Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service, schools must offer choices from all five required food components, which are “meats or meat alternatives, grains, fruit, vegetables and fluid milk.” A student must choose at least three of these options pertaining to the required serving sizes. One selection must be at least one-half cup of either fruits or vegetables.

The students were selected to go to the National Finals based on their meal preparation in a local competition held at Westside Tech against four other schools within the district. Anderson, Melendez and Decarvalho created spicy beef empanadas accompanied by a fruit salad with raspberry vinaigrette dressing and Tex-Mex fries — a concoction that helped them win the district competition and sent them on their way to the nation’s capital. Meals were judged based on originality, taste, appearance and presentation. The team re-created the same meal plan for the judges in Washington.

“They all did an awesome job,” said Sherall Applegate of Westside Tech. “We’re just so thrilled. This is the first time Orange County has competed with Cooking Up Change. It was shocking — the group from Westside Tech being the first to do it. And, hopefully, they will do it again next year.”

Although the students didn’t place in the national competition, Applegate said they were praised highly by the judges. And, their meat and seasoning creations will appear in Orange County schools in the fall, as well as their raspberry vinaigrette.

The students were timed (three hours to prepare and serve) and given a list of requirements for each course based on national nutrition standards on a tight budget, while also only using commonly available school food service ingredients and equipment. Cooking Up Change’s goal is to identify and create healthy options that students will actually eat while still taking into consideration the realistic capabilities of public school kitchens. Each full meal had to be prepared using six steps or less so they could be easily replicated on a large-scale basis in real school cafeterias.

“While many foods are ‘healthy,’ getting them in the right form, taste profile and texture are critical to ensure they are chosen by our students and then enjoyed by them, too,” said Lora Gilbert, senior director of OCPS food and nutrition services.

Creating a large quantity of healthy school lunches in a short amount of time can present a challenging “balancing act,” Gilbert said. The Westside Tech students have helped raise awareness of this issue along with all the other participants across the country, with Cooking Up Change giving support. With five days out of the week spent at school, it is important for lunch time to not only be enjoyable, but also beneficial for the wellbeing of the students. It might be a challenge, but these students are willing to work for the change and prove that it is, in fact, possible to create a meal that is delicious and good for you, too.

During their time in Washington, D.C., Anderson, Melendez and Decarvalho also toured the Capitol building and attended a congressional briefing where they met with Congressman Daniel Webster and Sen. Bill Nelson. The three students were given the opportunity to express their views about the need to provide nutritional lunches in public schools during this time and to hear from officials regarding the matter, leaving them feeling “very honored,” Applegate said.