School lunch can be healthful and delicious. And three St. Paul high school students are set to prove it at the National Farm to Cafeteria Conference in Detroit next week, the final round of the Taking Root Cooking Contest.

The team -- crew members Xia Lee, 17 (Central High School), Kou Lee, 16 (Como Park), and Vinnis Lee, 18 (Johnson) -- first met as junior-high students in the Community Design Center's cooking and gardening program. Now in its 40th year, the center operates seven youth-run community gardens on St. Paul's East Side and offers after-school and summer youth and adult classes in cooking, environmental science and art. The three students share the skills they've learned at the Design Center with their families at home. They've learned to wield knives and to plan nutritious meals using vegetables they grow. Vinnis, for instance, makes dinner most nights for her siblings.

To get to the final round of the contest, the Design Center crew competed against teams from across the country. The team submitted three recipes for lunch (entree plus two side dishes) using a list of food-service ingredients plus a locally grown item from no farther than 250 miles away. Team members followed strict nutritional guidelines, the recipes could have no more than six steps and the food had to taste great. The Design Center team is one of three that made it to the semifinals; the other teams are from Wisconsin and Arizona.

A teachable moment

"The best part of this contest is that the students come up with the menu and the recipes, and they have to cook it themselves without our adult assistance," said Jenny Breen, culinary expert at the center. Her work on childhood nutrition and curriculum issues is funded by a Bush Leadership Grant.

For their local ingredient, the crew chose cornmeal from Riverbend Farm (near Delano) for its polenta pizza topped with herbed tomato sauce, spinach and cheese. The meal is rounded out with a Minnesota slaw of diced apples, pears, shredded carrots and raisins in a tangy yogurt dressing.

The winning meal will be prepared by the conference kitchen's staff for more than 300 attendees.

We caught up with the crew during a practice run at the Midtown Global Market's kitchen on Lake Street.

"The contest is fun," said Kou Lee, stirring his pot of bubbling tomato sauce. "But I'm looking forward to getting outside into the garden, then cooking what we grow."

Beth Dooley is a Minneapolis author and cooking teacher.