The popular TV cooking competition, Iron Chef, often features world-renowned chefs who use expensive and exotic ingredients to create a one-of-a-kind meal for diners with discriminating taste.
At a recent Iron Chef contest in Colorado, the chefs were not famous, at least not yet. Their ingredients fit a low-cost budget and, instead of being one-of-a-kind, their recipes had to serve at least 10,000 hungry children and teens.
That's because the student cooks were taking part in the Iron Chef School Lunchroom competition.
In the large Monarch High School kitchen in Louisville, Colorado, cooking teams from a half dozen high schools stirred fragrant soups and chopped bright green garnishes of cilantro and mint. Some squeezed lemon juice on slices of jicama, a crispy, sweet, edible root from Mexico.
The teens, who are studying catering, were competing in the Boulder Valley School District's Iron Chef Contest for a coveted honor: The winning team's recipes would be on next year's official school lunch menu, which serves over 10,000 students every day.
Boulder High School's entry featured savory beef and shredded cabbage.
"It's a stuffed bun with beef, cabbage and onion," said one Boulder student chef. "Convenient to eat, and very, very delicious."
Mouth-watering aromas rose from a rich, golden broth prepared by students from Broomfield High.
"We made Aztec soup, which is like a tortilla chicken soup," said a Broomfield student. "I think you're smelling the lime juice. And the tomato sauce mixed together."
Another team pulled a bubbling pizza loaded with colorful toppings out of a large oven.
"Broccoli, tomatoes and olives," said a student, listing some of the ingredients. "It's probably one of the best-tasting pizzas I've ever had."
Healthy lunches: an issue of social justice
The idea for this Iron Chef contest came from celebrated chef and author Ann Cooper, who works to improve her community's school lunches.
Known as the Renegade Lunch Lady, Cooper said that providing affordable, tasty, healthy food to children is a social justice issue.
"Hungry children can't think. Malnourished children can't learn," said Cooper. "And we need to make sure that every child, every day is fed a delicious, nutritious meal so they can be the best they can be."
To help all children be their best, the National School Lunch Program funds low-cost or free lunches for more than 30 million American school children who otherwise would have trouble paying for something to eat.
But the subsidy doesn't fully cover buying the ingredients, preparing the food and serving it. So, many schools stretch their budgets with low-cost, highly processed items, such as chicken nuggets, French fries, and sugary snacks.
Cooper warns that these cheaper items can fuel expensive health problems.
"The Centers for Disease Control has said, of the children born in the year 2000, one out of every three Caucasians and one out of every two African-Americans and Hispanics will have diabetes in their lifetime," she said.
People are less likely to develop diabetes if they eat whole, natural foods, including vegetables, instead of processed foods and sugary snacks.
So, as director of nutrition services for Boulder Valley Schools, Cooper has removed sugar and fried foods from the lunches. She's also set up a full salad bar in each cafeteria.
"There's basic salad green mix, and also Romaine lettuce, carrots, peppers, cherry tomatoes, celery, garbanzo beans, cottage cheese, there's chicken and or eggs."
These options cost 30 percent more than a lunch of chicken nuggets and tater tots. But Cooper says it's possible to serve healthier ingredients and keep a school's lunch budget healthy if enough students participate.
That was a goal of the Iron Chef contest: to get students excited about creating, and eating healthy school lunches that taste great.
With an eye on what kids like, Monarch High's Iron Chef teens whipped up a healthy rendition of a school lunch classic.
"We're making sloppy Joes with a jicama-apple coleslaw," explained a Monarch student. "It's really healthy. We're using lean beef and it's good, and it's on whole wheat buns."
The coleslaw had a bit of a kick, which was appreciated by the judges.
"Oh, my goodness, you all. This is delicious," said one judge. "What is it in there that kind of gives it a little spice?"
The kids told her it was chili powder and Dijon mustard.
Chef Cooper was the one to announce the judges' final decision. The Monarch High School chefs took top honors for their Sloppy Joe and jicama apple salad.
"Everybody did a really great job. It was really nice," said Cooper. "We all enjoyed tasting everything. It was really wonderful."
The Monarch High students were excited their entry would soon be an official part of the school lunch menu.
"This seems like a great addition to the food to make it more appealing for the people that usually don't eat at the cafeteria, like myself," said one of the winning student chefs. "Maybe that, instead of going out for lunch and eating something unhealthy, maybe they can actually stay in school and eat something that's actually good for them, at a cheaper price."
Chef Ann Cooper plans more Iron Chef contests for the year up ahead. Her goal is to get more students to have fun by making and choosing healthier school lunches.