Cooking up more healthful school meals

By Chidinma Okparanta
The Gazette
Thursday, December 23, 2010; T17

The fries and Buffalo wings that Laurel High School serves at lunch just aren't cutting it anymore, according to senior Eme Akonawe. He wishes the meals were healthier and had more variety.

"Last year was horrible. . . . There's a bit more variety this year now that they have these new kind of fries that I think are roasted," Akonawe said. "But there's still a lot of work to be done to make the lunches healthier."

Akonawe is one of 54 students at Laurel High who soon will get the opportunity to create healthier meals for Prince George's County schools by forming Culinary and Healthful Enhancement Food, or CHEF, teams as part of a countywide competition. The teams will follow U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which include limiting saturated fat to less than 10 percent of calories.

In teacher Heather Piccott-Bryan's three classes, Akonawe and his classmates are trying to accomplish this by growing their own herbs and vegetables in class, relying on local produce when possible and avoiding processed ingredients in their meals.

They will do so through by using part of a $346,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant obtained jointly by the Maryland State Department of Education and the Restaurant Association of Maryland Education Foundation, and a curriculum known as ProStart, a national two-year program that prepares high school students for jobs in the culinary arts and restaurant and food service industry.

ProStart's curriculum is developed by The National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation, the philanthropic branch of the National Restaurant Association, which provides scholarships and educational and career services to students. ProStart is implemented in Maryland by the Restaurant Association of Maryland Education Foundation, which focuses on training and scholarship programs for students, according to LaDeana Wentzel, director of workforce development at the Restaurant Association of Maryland Education Foundation.

ProStart does not require the use of a commercial kitchen and can be taught in family and consumer science classrooms, making it cheaper for school districts to implement, said Melissa Richardson, the career technical education coordinator for Prince George's schools.

Additional costs for faculty training, cooking utensils and ProStart textbooks are covered by a Perkins grant, which provides federal funding to technical and vocational programs.

Akonawe already has helped his CHEF team create a chicken and burrito dish for the contest.

"Personally I think we're going to do great," said senior Jaquisha Johnson. "We all work very well together and know how to help each other if we make mistakes."

The winning dishes will be added to school lunch menus throughout the county.

In January 2009, officials of the state department of education and the Restaurant Association of Maryland Education Foundation proposed the idea for the competition to officials of the USDA and were awarded the grant in October 2009. They spent the past year setting criteria for interested school districts and training food service staff and teachers in food marketing, merchandising and presentation, as well as the nutritional requirements of the grant and how to apply for it.

Nine Maryland school districts submitted proposals and were awarded grants of up to $30,000 in July, said Lauren Burgmeier, a spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation.

The proposals were evaluated by a team of state school nutrition professionals based on cost-effectiveness, creativity and experience of the schools' teachers and school nutrition professionals, said Stewart Eidel, section chief for School and Community Nutrition at the state department of education.

"It has to be healthy and it has to be cost-effective. . . . Remember, high school school lunches cost $2.75," Piccot-Bryan said. "And it must be tasty . . . and something that can be easily prepared in the cafeteria."

County school officials invited Laurel High School to participate in the grant because of the interest expressed by Piccott-Bryan and her students.

School officials, food services personnel and ProStart coordinators at each school will decide how the money is allocated on items such as chef jackets, cooking equipment, food and educational field trips to local farms, Piccott-Bryan said.

Student menus must follow National School Lunch Program guidelines, which recommend that no more than 30 percent of calories come from fat and less than 10 percent come from saturated fat, in accordance with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The meals also must minimize added sugar and salt and maximize the use of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, Eidel said.

Tomatoes, basil, thyme, cilantro, chives and parsley are some vegetables and herbs students grew in the classroom and will use for the competition.

Laurel High is one of four county schools participating. The others are High Point High School in Beltsville, Forestville Military Academy in Forestville and Wise Junior High School in Upper Marlboro. Thirty-two other CHEF teams hail from Worcester, Washington, Kent, Howard, Garrett, Charles and Cecil counties and Baltimore.

Laurel's team is deciding which five recipes to submit for an in-school taste test in January. The best four will be sent to other county school cafeterias for tasting. In the final stage of the competition, in the spring, a committee of food service workers, nutritionists and cafeteria managers will select five final recipes to add to the county school lunch menu for the following school year.

"The hardest part is just getting together a dish and making sure it has variety," said junior Elliott Roberts. "I'm just hoping that we'll be picked to have our food at all the cafeterias."

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