There are many good reasons to make fresh fruits and vegetables, beans, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and lean meats more appealing and accessible to students participating in school food programs. For one, the health of our nation’s children is at stake. Diseases such as Type 2 Diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure, which were once seen only in adults, are now affecting children with alarming frequency. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that today’s youth will have a shorter lifespan than their parents. Schools must play a significant role in addressing this health crisis. For many students, school breakfast and lunch are the only meals they eat in a day. Every student should be encouraged to make the healthiest choices possible. Unhealthy foods are relentlessly marketed to children through television advertising and websites, in printed media, and around the community. To help students make better food choices that will positively influence their long-term health, schools must ramp up their efforts to market healthy choices using fun, engaging, and creative programs and messaging.
During the 2017 – 2018 school year, the Health and Physical Education (HPE) department at Old Donation School (ODS) in Virginia Beach City Public Schools (VBCPS) committed to addressing the school lunch battle head on. Our school brought in a group called Beyond Green Sustainable Food Partners (“Beyond Green”) to transform the way our school cooked and served its meals, from a traditional school lunch to scratch cooking. Our department partnered with Beyond Green and VBCPS Food Services to bring the kitchen to the classroom. We appropriately named this adventure Top Chef. Top Chef consisted of seventh-grade HPE students who competed for a chance to be one of three groups that were selected to cook their meal creation in our kitchen for our student body. This first round of Top Chef took place in the Fall of 2017.
As part of meeting their nutrition curriculum, all seventh-graders were tasked with creating a meal in groups of four to five students. Students were given very basic nutritional guidelines to follow, including U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) school meal guidelines and National School Lunch Program vegetable and grain requirements. Schools across the nation must follow these guidelines for their breakfasts and lunches. Students then created their own recipes, working hand-in-hand with Beyond Green and VBCPS Food Services staff who gave feedback and helped students tweak their recipes to meet the guidelines.
Each class selected one of the prepared meals developed by their student groups to present to the rest of the seventh-grade. From these nine meals, students selected the top three. Once the top three groups were chosen, the students in those groups took a list of their ingredients to the kitchen staff and began collaborating with them to pull together their menus for the full student body, 1,200 students. During this process, the students worked with a nutritionist, who came in and put the top three groups through food preparation training.
Finally, the top three student groups prepared and served their meals. They spent the entire school day in the kitchen, coming in early to prepare or preparing the day before, and then cooking and serving all day. All the students loved the meals they were served. In fact, we sold our highest numbers of school lunches on those days! The entire student body then voted, using an online system, for the meal they wanted to keep on the menu. The winner, a Taco Bar, was featured at ODS’ first Fine Dining Experience, a special lunch time event with dance, music, and art. Every student in the building came away with a different outlook on nutrition: understanding that nutrition is not only for the body but for the mind and soul as well.
Following the first round of Top Chef, kitchen staff, HPE staff, and students walked away with a better understanding of the importance of sticking to the USDA guidelines for cost purposes, ordering purposes, and nutritional purposes. They also had to work through several road blocks when it came to the USDA guidelines. Despite this, the first round of our Top Chef program was a huge success. Students continuously asked when the next round was going to start, hoping that their meal would be chosen so that they would get an opportunity to cook for their peers. The second round, held in Spring of 2018, was even more successful and ran much smoother after making some adjustments. The winning students got to cook for an even bigger event: a community engagement and volunteer awards banquet for VBCPS, held in April of 2018.
Currently, the meals that the students prepared for the student body as part of Top Chef are featured on the bi-weekly menu for ODS. Given the program’s success, we plan to continue this program into the 2018 – 2019 school year.
Rachel Thompson is the Department Chair for Health and Physical Education at Old Donation School in Virginia Beach, Virginia. She is a lifetime fitness and health enthusiast. Her life goal is to teach life applications to her students toward living and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.