Dallas ISD is Cooking Up Change

The Dallas Examiner

Innovative ways to manage the cost of public school lunches; a hands-on approach to pushing back against childhood obesity; and the chance for a local high school culinary team to win a trip to Washington, D.C. – all three factors were motivators to the Dallas Independent School District student chefs in the Cooking Up Change competition held at the Art Institute of Dallas, March 25.

The contest is part of the Healthy Schools Campaign, an initiative that began in Chicago and endeavors to ensure that children have access to healthy school environments for an improved learning experience, according to the campaign’s website.

Twelve student teams from DISD worked for months to do their part in developing healthy yet affordable meals that could be served in their campus cafeterias.

Not only were the teams vying for an all-expense-paid trip to the nation’s capitol where the local winner will be part of the national competition in June, but the top recipe will also be added to the school district’s lunch menu.

“What this competition is about from my perspective is it shows the kids a sense of timing, balance, knowledge,” said Cheryl Harris, culinary arts instructor of the first place Conrad High School team, as she dried her eyes, overjoyed by the victory. The students under her guidance who took top honors in the competition were Jorge Bahena, Trishna Biswa and Karla Bocanegra for their Crispy Chicken Tender Wrap, Sassy Italian Corn and Banana Delight.

“They have to learn how to work in the real world when they graduate,” the chef continued. “This competition is a leading component for them to [say], ‘Hey, I have to schedule out certain things in order to make this recipe.”

The contest dealt with more than just food preparation. Harris described the “strict rules” of the contest the students faced.

“We cannot go over $1.25. That was our dollar amount, so they had to come together using their math, their English, their science; all of that applied together with their learning of the culinary world of having to present a winning recipe.”

The meal also had to conform to the dietary guidelines of the state. Part of the impetus behind Cooking Up Change is the potential school food plays in the fight against obesity that is on the rise in young people in the U.S.

“Absolutely, it had to be healthy,” the educator remarked on the team’s creation.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that obesity now affects 1 in 6 children and adolescents in the United States. In 2013, the CDC estimated that 15.7 percent of Texas students in grades nine through 12 were obese, the highest percentage since 2001.

The five-judge panel that named the Conrad dish the best of the best included Jeremy Tezano, a Wilmer-Hutchins student who cooked on last year’s winning DISD team. He noted quite a bit has changed for him since his trip to the 2016 national completion.

“I’ve done a multitude of interviews, a lot of doors have opened for me, I’ve got my dish in an actual restaurant menu,” he said, referring to the Lower Greenville restaurant HG Sply Co. The “Wilmer-Hutchins” – consisting of pork over cauliflower rice with broccoli, carrots, onion and red bell pepper – is part of the restaurant’s health-conscious children’s menu and was designed by the winning team from last year’s competition.

“And it’s still there and it’s thriving, and all the kids love it,” he remarked. Tezano also admitted that being a judge might be different from being a competitor, but they both come with challenges.

“It opened my eyes to see that the pressure isn’t always on the students; it’s on the judges, too. We get to eat a lot of good food and then, by the time its time to choose the winner, it’s hard. You’ve tasted so many delicious meals and it’s hard to pick which one you liked best – but I’m really happy with the outcome and who won.”

Harris considered that the difficulty in picking a champion spoke to the quality of the skill within her young chefs and possibilities open to them in the future.

“It feels great to see what the kids have learned from me, and taken it to heart, and put it into practice, she said. “This is our best practices, because I know some students will listen to you but they’ll just kind of ease on by; these students took it to heart. They had a winning spirit, they knew that they had a challenge, and they were ready for it – so we spent days and nights on the phone, back and forth, to get things smoothed out, so they really fought through this. It’s for them.”

For Tezano, it was more than just great food that Team Conrad brought to the contest.

“Also, [it was] their confidence in their presentation. I knew that it’s something big in the national competition in D. C., and I knew, with that confidence and their presentation, they’ll go really far,” the judge said. “It’ll take them a long way.”

Time, effort and patience helped the trio claim the local prize, their instructor commented. “I’d like to thank everyone that gave us a chance for these kids to see, no matter what school you go to, no matter what grade you’re in, you can enter the real world, and still be successful.”

The second-place team was Team Three from Moises E. Molina High School, which consisted of students Nereida Arvizu, Jennifer Esparza and Alexis Espinoza. Third place went to Team One – also from Molina High School – featuring Cynthia Alvarado, Samuel Infante and Eryn Sherwood. Chef Matt Denman is the culinary arts instructor for the school.

Bryan Adams, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Skyline and Townview High Schools also competed.

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