"I get students who show up who don't want to be in school, come to my program and then all of a sudden they show up every day," said Annie Redd, a culinary instructor.
Esther Segura, a senior at the school, is on a mission to help herself and her family reverse years of bad health and diabetes.
"My sister passed away," Segura said. "That was a big impact, so they're diabetic and I don't want to be like them. I want to change the way we eat. I don't want to be the person who has to be checking their self (that) they're OK. I want to be a normal kid."
Seguara discovered how separate ingredients come together to create flavor.
"It's amazing," she said. "You add a little bit of this and a little bit of this, it gives it a different taste."
That's much like junior Maribel Sandoval's take on nachos. She tops the dish with carrots and peas.
"It gives it a sweeter taste," she said.
Senior Jose Landaverde just discovered what you can do with balsamic vinegar to make dressing.
"I put cinnamon, orange zest and a little bit of honey," he said.
The contest stirs up excitement, even though there's a strict list of requirements. The total meal needs to be between 750 and 850 calories, under 10 percent saturated fat, no trans fat at all and under 1,400 milligrams of sodium. That's a tough order for any chef. It also needs to be about a buck per person, per meal.
"We're right at about $1.20 for the five different components. For breakfast, we have roughly 80 cents," said David Binkle, the Los Angeles Unified School District food service director.
Binkle said schools meet government requirements, but unfortunately, sometimes that creates situations where the trash cans end up fuller than students' bellies.
"There is a waste element to it because the kids are mandated to take a certain amount of food, even though they don't necessarily want it," Binkle said.
Binkle hopes programs like Cooking up Change can make a real difference.
Last year, a school in Santa Ana won. This year, 28 Los Angeles teams will vie for a chance to go to Washington D.C. for the finals.