Culinary-arts students from Doyle Career and Transition Center in Gardena along with students from Banning High in Wilmington are cooking up original
Culinary-arts students from Doyle Career and Transition Center in Gardena along with students from Banning High in Wilmington are cooking up original entrees in a contest this month whose winners will see their signature dish added to next year's LAUSD menu rotation.

Some people leave a legacy at their high schools through feats of athletics. A few culinary-arts students from a handful of high schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District - including two in the South Bay - are vying to leave their mark in all of the sprawling district's cafeterias.

Six small teams of chefs from the culinary-arts programs of as many schools - including Banning High in Wilmington and Doyle Career and Transition Center in Gardena - are cooking up original entrees in a contest this month whose winners will see their signature dish added to next year's LAUSD menu rotation. (Typical entrees appear nine times a year.)

It's all part of a broader LAUSD initiative to give kids more of a voice in the process of deciding how to offer more healthful school lunches.

"We want our customers to give us feedback," said David Binkle, LAUSD's director of food services. "We want to be able to serve the healthiest meals we can that students will enjoy."

Owing in part to its proximity to a national hub of agriculture, LAUSD has long been a step ahead of the national curve on school nutrition. About a decade ago, it was among the first in the nation to nix the sale of carbonated beverages, for instance. Now, the district is one step ahead of the rest by replacing all canned and frozen fruits and veggies with the real deal. (Some 72 percent of all produce served in LAUSD schools comes from farms within 200 miles.)

But well-intentioned menu offerings don't always take. To find out what kids will and won't eat, the district recently began holding regular tasting events and distributing surveys. As a result, some new items have been voted off the menu - such as a Cajun-style rice-and-sausage dish (too alien) and an Italian flat bread (too garlicky).

The cooking contest is an additional way to further advance the idea of student participation.

On Jan. 31, students working in teams of two and three will present their dishes at the Los Angeles Trade Technical College downtown. The entrees and side dishes are a far cry from the sloppy joes and mystery meats that have come to define the school-cafeteria food of popular imagination.

Contest entrees will include barbecue-chicken pizza (from Doyle) and a chicken-fajita wrap (from Banning). Even more gourmet-sounding are some of the entered side dishes: roasted vegetables with honey-citrus dressing, black bean salad, mandarin-pineapple-vanilla parfait, fruit salad with cumin-lime dressing.

Called "Cooking Up Change," the contest is part of a nationwide effort headed up by Healthy Schools Campaign, a nonprofit group out of Chicago. As such, winners of the LAUSD contest will not only enjoy the satisfaction of seeing their dish grace the menu of the nation's second-largest school district, they will also take a five-day field trip to Washington, D.C., for the final round in May. The nationwide winner - last year it was Santa Ana Valley High - might have the meal served to the U.S. House of Representatives. (Contest organizers are still trying to nail down the logistics.)

This is LAUSD's first foray into the contest, which originated in Chicago and has existed for about six years, Binkle said. To find the teams, LAUSD's food services department reached out to all 26 schools in the district with a culinary-arts program. (Three years ago, 35 LAUSD schools had such a program, but the budget crisis wiped out many of them.) Teams from six schools decided they were up to it.

Aside from the two South Bay teams, the competitors include student foodies from West Adams Prep near Mid City, Marshall High near Griffith Park, Polytechnic High in Sun Valley and Santee Education Complex near downtown.

The dishes must be more than simply tasty; they also must pass muster with the ingredient police - LAUSD dietitians - who test the recipes for their adherence to the USDA's school-food guidelines.

This meant the elimination of olive oil in the recipe at Doyle, said Jesse Cuevas, that school's culinary-arts instructor.

"It's a healthier oil, but it wasn't on the ingredient list," he said. "I was surprised."

Others have had to make do with less sugar, or replace a dash of salt with a dash of spice.

One of the teams - Doyle - is made up of three special-needs students. (The 3-year-old school aims to provide career-and-life skills to students with developmental disabilities such as mental retardation and autism.)

With the help of their instructor, Cuevas, they hit upon their offering - barbecue-chicken pizza - through trial and error.

They tried pizza on regular dough, but that turned out to be too labor-intensive and they settled on pita. They also tried a Mexican pizza but were thwarted by the limitations of the ingredient list.

"That was probably the best thing about it," Cuevas said of the trial-and-error approach. "Students learn best that way."

Meanwhile, the winning dish also will be used for educational purposes throughout the district. Binkle said he plans to use it as a basis for field trips to area farms showing students where certain foods come from. So if the winning entry includes a strawberry parfait, students throughout the district may take bus trips to a strawberry provider in Oxnard. Binkle said he doesn't rule out the possibility of field trips to slaughterhouses.

"This is what we consume in America - teaching kids about it is important," he said. "A lot of these kids have not been outside of their own block. They don't know that a potato comes out of the ground. They just see them as french fries."

rob.kuznia@dailybreeze.com

Follow Rob Kuznia on Twitter at twitter.com/robkuznia