Erika Henderson winces when she thinks of the food served up in the cafeteria at her Howard County high school - especially the wheat crust pizza.
"It's disgusting," said Henderson, a senior at Oakland Mills High. "It's cheap food with no seasoning."
But on a recent day, as she lunched on microwaveable instant noodles she brought from home, Henderson and the other students in culinary arts class were taking up a challenge to change things. They sliced onions and dipped them in batter, tweaking a dish they hope will win a place on the county's school cafeteria menu next fall.
Over the past decade, school cafeteria food has taken a turn for the healthier, federal officials say, in response to the epidemic of child obesity. But the challenge has been balancing better nutrition with tastes that appeal to students raised in a fast-food world. So Howard's and other school systems in Maryland and across the country are enrolling students in an effort to upgrade cafeteria menus.
Baltimore schools put on a similar contest this year, with bonus points for family recipes and use of locally grown ingredients. A Florida school system invited students to take part in a veggie burger taste-testing. In Ohio, teen chefs were offered college scholarships for cooking up a winning recipe.
And a school system in California relied on research of students' preferences in developing a food court model that includes sushi, stir-fry and deli-style sandwiches.
"I think the lesson for us all is that if we get children to make healthier choices [they] make their own choices and make healthier decisions," said Jean Daniel, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
School lunch is a part of the daily routine for many children. Nationally, 31 million lunches are served daily in public schools, the USDA says. Last academic year, 72 million lunches were served in Maryland public schools, eaten by 45 percent of students.
While the effort in Howard is drawing the attention of other jurisdictions, officials there have had their ups and down with school lunches. The system adopted a stringent "wellness" policy in 2006 that limited the sales of high-fat foods as a la carte items - apple slices were in; french fries were out.
But students balked in droves, and the system's food program budget incurred a $740,000 deficit, school officials said.
Now they're looking at new ways to give students a voice in the process.
"We think that they will try something that was prepared by their peers," said Laurie Collins, an instructional facilitator for the Family and Consumer Science curriculum in Howard schools. "When they do an all-out marketing thing and get kids involved, they will eat it."
In addition to the recipe contest, the school system will use feedback from an annual tasting of prospective food items by students in making menu decisions. At the January taste-testing of 66 "healthy food items" at Howard High in Ellicott City, 12 students sampled everything from fruit smoothies to teriyaki chicken.
The event was attended by representatives from all 12 counties that take part in a food purchasing cooperative that includes Howard County. Students' feedback will factor into decisions on what food is purchased, said Mary Klatko, the system's administrator of food and nutrition services.
Though aimed at yielding a menu with taste appeal, the recipe contest is posing a challenge, students say. Aside from making items that are tasty, the participants must adhere to nutritional and cost limits. For example, a dish cannot exceed 750 calories (no more than 30 percent of the calories from fat) or 150 milligrams of sodium. Deep fried is a no-no, and an item must cost no more than $1.22 to make.
Classes in five of the county's 12 high schools are busy working on dishes for the competition, which will conclude with judging on April 1, Collins said. The items range from sandwich wraps to pizza bagels to baked sweet potato wedges.
The Oakland Mills students have been testing recipes and food combinations, and on a recent day were working on a recipe for baked onion rings. They were making them the old-fashioned way - fried in oil in a sauce pan - for comparison with the baked ones.
Zenoba Stephens, who teaches Henderson's culinary arts class, said the project has struck a chord with the students, adding, "They actually have some input as to what they will have during lunch."
As they sliced onions, the students talked of how cafeteria food has plenty of room for improvement.
"You can only eat two things on the menu - chicken nuggets and french fries," Larissa Lopez said.
Her classmates complained about the costs of lunch - tied for highest in Maryland at $3 - the "nasty" vegetables, and the wheat crust pizza that they likened to "cardboard."
School officials say they recognize it's a tall order to serve meals that are healthy and satisfy the taste bud of today's teen.
"Not everything will be pleasing to everybody," Klatko said. "A family of six might not agree. When we have 18,000 students, not everyone will like all the menu items. That is why we have choices."
Part of what's at work is the growing sophistication of the teenage palate, Collins said. The surge in popularity in the culinary arts - exemplified by TV shows such as Top Chef and Hell's Kitchen and the personas of celebrity cooks Emeril Lagasse, Rachel Ray and Paula Deen - has resonated with teens.
"They are eating different things," Klatko said. "There is a comfort and an excitement about food that didn't exist before."
Students participating in the Howard County recipe competition must create items that adhere to stringent cost and nutrition guidelines:
Cost to make
Entree:: No more than 58 cents
Fruit:: 16 cents
Vegetable:: 16 cents
Bread:: 11 cents
Milk:: 11 cents
Condiments:: 10 cents
No more than::
30 percent of calories from fat
10 percent of calories from saturated fat
150 mg of sodium