Pizza, corn dogs and salty French fries are commonplace in cafeterias across the U.S., and many argue that it's contributed to the country's skyrocketing childhood obesity rate, which according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has increased from 6.5 percent in 1980 to 19.6 percent in 2008. In an effort to change these statistics, one school district in Nevada is teaming up with a celebrity chef's dining group to come up with healthy and tasty dishes to serve at their local cafeterias.
"Kids are the ones that eat the food and kids are the ones who give the best input," said Dustin Lewandowski, a chef with the Wolfgang Puck Dining Group, who helped organize a student-led cooking competition involving teenage culinary students at Las Vegas’ Northwest Career and Technical Academy on April 26. "Some of things (professional chefs) create, we think it's a homerun. We put it in front of (middle and high school students) and they really don't care for it."
The academy's students were divided into six groups, with each team given the task of creating a three-course meal from a "mystery bag" of healthy items that included lean meats, fresh vegetables and fresh fruits. The winning recipes will be considered for the Clark County School District's cafeteria menu next fall, but it would first have to pass the "taste test" of a visiting group of 40 local fifth and sixth graders carrying hungry appetites.
"I think it's awesome because it's something that wasn't created by a (school) district or an organization," said Jeremy Sabina, a graduating senior culinary student at the Northwest Career Technical Academy, who took part in the competition. "It was something created by us, for us."
The distinguished group of young “judges” were more than pleased with the final product, which included a freshly-tossed field green salad, a chicken penne pasta, coconut shrimp, spicy chicken with broccoli and an orange chicken stir fry with vegetables.
"I think it's really good,” said fifth grader Brissa Marquez, who specifically enjoyed the coconut shrimp dish. Marquez is not a big fan of the food at her school's cafeteria, so she welcomed the idea of having these dishes added to the menu.
"Some of the food is nasty, so I think I would like this.”
Fellow fifth grader Angel Duran provided another ringing endorsement for the day's recipes.
"I prefer to eat this for the rest of my life," she said.
Lewondoski applauded the academy's students for coming up with such unique and healthy food recipes despite the limitation of items provided in the "mystery bag."
"No filet mignon, no imported sausage, or basil and arugula," said Lewondoski. "We tried to use the ingredients we had and put a twist on them. (The culinary students) did a very good job of rising to the occasion and being creative.
Seventeen-year-old Nubian Franklin was a part of the winning team that came up with the coconut shrimp and orange chicken stir fry dishes. Like Sabina, he’ll be graduating this spring and was happy he took part in the competition.
"I'm glad that it came my senior year, it's nice to have something as big as this, said Franklin. “We didn't know it was going to be this big, so it was a pretty fun event.”
For Sabina, the prospect of satisfying the taste buds of fellow students in the school district next fall was somewhat surreal.
"There's going to be 15-year-olds and 16-year-olds eating this food and they're going to be like 'somebody I know made this.’"