The world has arrived in Seattle’s public school cafeterias. With dozens of countries represented by the diverse student body, many students have come to the United States and traded the cultural foods of their homeland for the fast food popular among today’s youth. As a result, many recently arrived immigrants and low-income populations are at a high risk for obesity (study). To counter the expanding waistlines, the Seattle HEbD project came up with the novel and healthy concept to introduce traditional and ethnic cuisine into the elementary school lunch menu. On the third Thursday of each month in the Seattle and Highline districts, students are offered a meal selected from their diverse countries of origin. In addition, the students receive a menu card detailing the meal, its recipe, its cultural significance, and its nutritional information.
The diverse cuisine has been a hit among the 65,000 students in the two districts. Vietnamese sandwiches, and Somali Spaghetti have been served so far, with their success fueling demand for more culturally-relevant foods. In January, they will be serving Phat Prik Gai (Thai spicy green beans and chicken) and in February, they will be serving Louisiana Gumbo (a recipe submitted by a student that reflects their African American heritage).
“It gives a chance for the other kids who don’t know about this stuff, to try new things,” said Davinar, one of the student taste-testers.
The students aren’t the only ones taking risks and embracing the new program. One of the challenges of serving the ethnic dishes, which typically use whole, fresh ingredients, has been changing the system accustomed to canned and pre-prepared foods. The success of the program, however, has melted the resistance and made the logistical challenges seem much less daunting. Volunteers, cafeteria workers and teachers have embraced the program, working together to encourage participation and find solutions to any issues.
Chris Neal, Director of Child Nutrition for Highline Public Schools who was skeptical of the program at first, summed up the change in attitude.
“We can do anything we want!” With recipes pouring in, the staff is excited about the challenges that lay ahead.
Menu items are solicited from students, parents, staff, community members and local ethnic restaurants. The cuisines are evaluated for nutritional value, affordability (for school system), ease of preparation (time), availability of ingredients, and taste. Once the final candidates are selected, the recipes are tested and adjusted in the kitchen and a taste test is given to staff and students.
“We want to offer whole foods,” said Kirsten Frandsen, the school districts’ nutrition coordinator. “We’re trying to place a greater emphasis on fresh fruits and vegetables.”
The introduction of ethnic foods represents more than just a change in the menu in the battle against childhood obesity. The Seattle HEbD partnership believes that these changes can help introduce better nutrition in the diet of Seattle elementary students. From the classroom, where teachers are provided with program materials that connect food, ethnicity and health, to the cafeteria, where the menu reflects the growing Asian, Latino and African populations, students see the importance of diversity and healthy eating.
In Seattle, these kid-tested, HEbD-approved meals have changed the way the system feeds its pupils and proved that healthy foods are feasible and, most important of all, tasty.