MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – On Thursday night in Minneapolis, teams of middle schoolers and professional chefs will compete in an Iron Chef-style battle.

The winning dish will go on the school lunch menu. Yup, fresh, creative food in the cafeteria.

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Indeed, things have changed, and Minneapolis Public Schools is a national innovator.

Students Aysa Cavell and Eyala Elate are part of this new generation.

They are kids who can cook, and they also like school lunch.

“My mom started to teach me how to cook when I was really little,” Cavell said.

Minneapolis Public Schools is teaming students with local chefs, like Carrie McCabe Johnson, the owner of Nightingale on Lyndale Avenue.

McCabe Johnson confessed to never eating school lunch when she attended Webster Middle School.

“It just looked and smelled terrible,” she said.

Times have changed.

McCabe Johnson is working with the students to create a plant-based curry meal for Thursday’s competition. The dish uses peppers, cauliflower, tomatoes, sweet potatoes and spinach, among other vegetables.

Her team will compete against other teams of middle schoolers and chefs at the Junior Iron Chef competition.

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“We’re really seeing an interest in students getting into the kitchen and learning how to cook for themselves,” said Kate Seybold, who runs the Farm to School program in Minneapolis.

Yes, that’s right, there’s a farm-to-school program, and that’s because most Minneapolis schools now have scratch kitchens.

And Sanford Middle School has a heck of a salad bar.

“If you were visiting Sanford 10 years ago, everything would be prepackaged, there would have been no salad bar,” Seybold said.

A council of local chefs helps hone the recipes.

McCabe Johnson is also the mom of a Minneapolis Public School seventh grader.

“It’s nice to know when they come to school, the school lunch system no longer uses any trans-fats, no food coloring, no corn syrup,” she said.

The school district has remade the central kitchen with tax dollars and a boost from the LifeTime Foundation.

“They’ve been really great, really innovative, in finding new ways to get kids involved in the changes that are being made,” said Madeline Augustin, of the LifeTime Foundation.

The hope is that the lessons Aysa and Eyala learn in Sanford’s kitchen lead to healthier eating habits outside of school.

Thursday night is the fifth year for the Junior Iron Chef competition, and anyone can go and watch. It starts at 5:30 p.m. at Chowgirls in the Solar Arts Building.

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Other chefs participating in the competition include: Jared Brewington from Funky Grits, Tammy Wong from Rainbow Chinese, and Justin Sutherland from Handsome Hog.

Jason DeRusha