With a system of 28 schools and some 15,000 students with a broad range of cultural backgrounds, creating meals that satisfy everyone is a challenge. As general manager of food and nutrition for Lowell Public Schools in Massachusetts, Alysia Spooner-Gomez has successfully faced that challenge over the last several years.
With help from a high school history class project called Tasting History, the culinary team has introduced flavors from around the world to lunch menus. The staff also borrows global limited time offer recipes provided by Aramark, which manages the district’s foodservice.
“Our goal is to have a flavor-forward menu that exposes our students to a variety of cuisines, student favorites, fresh fruit and vegetables, while meeting our nutrition guidelines,” Spooner-Gomez explains.
In a recent month, choices included a black bean and rice bowl, egg roll in a bowl, seafood po-boys, penne Bolognese, beef or pork tacos. Other options have included lok lak (Cambodian pepper beef), arroz con pollo (a student and staff favorite) and turkey banh mi alongside classic favorites like chicken tenders, sandwiches and pizza. Currently one chef is working on rollout of a ramen bar at the high school; if that’s a success, it will be adopted in the middle and elementary schools as well.
The tasting history project is an annual event in teacher Jessica Lander’s U.S. history classes, the final portion of a section on early 1900s immigration. Many of her students are recent immigrants, and she assigns them to collaborate on a cookbook containing favorite family recipes and stories of their immigration journeys.
“I was so excited when Alysia reached out to us wanting to spotlight and share our students’ family recipes in the district cafeterias,” Lander says. Spooner-Gomez and an executive chef evaluate the recipes for possible use on the school menus, then adapt them so they comply with federal nutrition guidelines. Then they visit the classroom and solicit the students’ opinions on the results.
“In this way, food from Cambodia, Somaliland, Guatemala, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Brazil and Columbia has been served in our cafeterias for the first time,” Lander notes.
Other students also play a significant part in determining what goes on the menu. Spooner-Gomez says the district has a strong engagement program in which students sample the breakfast and lunch items and provide feedback. In addition, the cafeterias are equipped with tablet surveys where students can weigh in on the day’s offerings and request future choices.
While the menus have evolved, so have the foodservice staff’s skills, thanks to ongoing training. The chefs prepare visual recipe cards that feature step-by-step instructions and images for each recipe. The cards are available across the district to ensure consistency.
“Having hands-on training has really helped develop the staff’s skills, increased the staff’s knowledge on new cuisines and their confidence in making them,” Spooner-Gomez says. “They also get to try the dishes so they can speak to how they taste.”
Each day, Lowell Schools’ lunches feature two hot options, a salad or platter and a cold sandwich. A hot and cold vegetarian dish is available every day.
The system also has made an effort to ramp up local procurement of fish, fruits and vegetables, including hydroponic lettuce, carrot sticks, greenhouse tomatoes and other seasonal items. The schools are also partnered with a nearby Rhode Island bakery.
“This is a great way to show students where their food is grown,” Spooner-Gomez says.
Overall, Spooner-Gomez says, students have been excited about the new additions to the menu, and the staff has enjoyed expanding their skills to include new cuisines.
“What we serve in our cafeterias matters,” Lander says. “It shows our students what we value and who we value. My students have told me how powerful it is to see the dishes they cook at home served in our cafeteria, and I hear and see the excitement of students who’ve never tried these dishes having the opportunity to taste favorite recipes of their peers and friends.”