When Howard County school officials launched a competition allowing students to concoct dishes to be included on the school menu, they probably didn't envision that the contest would ultimately lead to a trip to the White House.
Yet a contingent led by culinary students and faculty from Atholton High School in Columbia visited recently, courtesy of an invitation that came about after an aide to first lady Michelle Obama read about the county's student "Top Chef" competition.
In each of the past two years, the county's Food and Nutrition Department and family and consumer science teachers have sponsored the competition. Students from various high schools compete to create dishes — meeting state and federal nutrition guidelines while staying within the county's budget — then serve the entries to students who judge a winner.
Two years ago, Atholton students won with a Buffalo chicken wrap, which is now featured on the county high schools menu.
The culinary students who came up with the winning dish are no longer at Atholton, so they were represented at the White House on the last weekend of August by their teacher, Liela Razik, and some of her current culinary students. The first lady and President Barack Obama also weren't in attendance, yet the Howard contingent of more than 50 people were delighted that the competition had yielded such a response, just as it has among Howard students who took part in the contest.
"The experience was cool because I had never been to the White House. Nobody in my family has ever gone," said Sara Bailey, 16, a senior from Columbia. She added that she spread the word on Facebook.
Yuri Villatoro, 17, a 12th-grader from Columbia, said she remembers seeing White House photos of John Travolta dancing with Princess Diana and the Obamas alongside Magic Johnson.
"We talked to the guards, and they were telling us a lot of interesting things, like how they take down the displays afterward," said Villatoro.
Atholton officials were pleased that the competition drew the attention of a first lady who has led a national campaign to support more availability of healthy yet creative school meals. The competition also taught students about state and federal governments' criteria for school meals, including nutrition, cost and sanitation.
"The idea behind the contest was to develop recipes by students to use in the school meals program," said Mary Klatko, Howard County schools' director of food and nutrition services. "Students are our customers, and we would like to know what they're thinking and what their tastes are in food."
The foods were tested last year at Mount View Middle School in Marriottsville and Long Reach High School in Columbia and by high school students countywide at the Howard County Application and Research Lab's Hotel and Restaurant Management Academy.
Six high schools participated in the event two years ago, when Atholton won. Last year, four high schools participated. Their efforts to create nutritious and tasty meals are a testament to a county that frequently has taken first prize in the state's annual Culinary and Management Competitions.
During the judging, "the students knew that it was an item prepared by other high school students; they did not know which high schools," said Laurie Collins, family and consumer science coordinator. "They got a sample-sized piece of it, and we had them vote, and that way they could say whether it was appealing, whether it smelled good, tasted good, was it something they would buy, did they think their friends would buy it if it was offered on the menu."
Razik said her students made the Buffalo chicken wrap with such ingredients as light ranch dressing, a whole wheat wrap, hot sauce and lemon juice. "They used the lemon juice because they were taught that if you're going to take out the fat, you have to put some flavor in," she said.
This year, students will need to create a week's worth of recipes for the competition, which is set to resume in the spring.
But Atholton students like Bailey already delight in how the school has fared in the competition. When asked if it mattered that the first family wasn't around for their White House visit, she replied, "I know they're busy."
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