Portland Public Schools Developing Culturally Important School Lunch Menu

The Portland Public Schools Food Service Department, in partnership with local nonprofits and consultants, is working to introduce culturally important menu items to the school lunch options served at the district’s high schools.

This spring, students at Deering, Casco Bay, and Portland high schools are taste-testing food items adapted from traditional Central African cuisine and providing feedback that will help the district decide if the new food items will be incorporated onto the high school lunch menu for next school year. Another goal of the project is to encourage more student engagement and participation in school lunch.

This project is funded by Full Plates, Full Potential, and led by Food Service Director Jane McLucas and local food justice nonprofit Cultivating Community. It is being implemented by several community partners that include FoodCorps, Cumberland County Food Security Council (CCFSC), Good Shepherd Food Bank, and the University of Southern Maine (USM).

“We are Maine’s largest and most diverse school district, and this project is an important – and delicious – way to help us acknowledge and celebrate our diversity,” said Superintendent Xavier Botana. “All our students should have the opportunity to enjoy a wider variety of culturally diverse menu items, which could encourage more students to participate in our nutritious school lunch program. We are very grateful to the wide variety of community partners working with us on this and other projects to ensure food security for all our students.”

This initiative was born from Food Fuels Learning, a network of school and community partners working to build food security in the Portland Public Schools. It is made possible due to the recipe development work done by Khadija Ahmed and Chef Samantha Cowens-Gasbarro with Westbrook Public Schools’ Nutrition Director Mary Emerson.

Ahmed is the owner-operator of Food For All African Mobile Market and the Community Impact Manager for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) at Good Shepherd Food Bank. Cowens-Gasbarro is the executive chef for Healthy School Recipes and a school nutrition consultant. These two adapted traditional Central African cuisine into meals that meet federal nutrition guidelines. Replicating the recipes developed in Westbrook, Ahmed and Cowens-Gasbarro are now working with district high school cafeteria staff to test similar recipes in Portland, while also educating staff about the importance of cultural representation in school food.

Food service staff are learning how to cook these new dishes this spring. Every high school student in the district will also have the opportunity to try and provide feedback on potential menu items. This work aims for students to see more familiar dishes offered at school and encourage higher participation in school meals – a proven strategy for increasing food security and reducing stigma around accessing these nutritious foods.

FoodCorps Service Member and Deering High School graduate Mercia Ckaba-Thomas created posters to educate students about the event: “We share a bond through food that creates better connections between cultures, and celebrates the many differences that exist in the Portland community.”

The first taste test took place on March 24. A meal of smashed kidney beans, spiced beef, and cabbage slaw was offered to students, with great success. Taste test coordinators Mercia Ckaba-Thomas (FoodCorps), Zoe Grodsky (CCFSC), Lily Chaleff (Cultivating Community) and Cowens-Gasbarro offered samples and collected feedback from over 250 students with the support of students from USM Professor Jamie Picardy’s “Food, Power, and Social Justice” class and Food Fuels Learning (FFL) high school interns, Anna Behuniak (Portland) and Leaticia Hannah (Deering).

“I would absolutely be more interested in school lunch, especially if this dish was served.” reported one Casco Bay student. Other recipes expected to be tested are chickpeas and chicken over jollof rice and a chicken and spinach stew. A second student taste test is slated for May 19.

In addition to voting and short-form feedback on the day of the taste tests, students are able to sign up to participate in one-hour focus groups. These sessions aim to gather more in-depth insights on cultural representation in school meals and how to better create an inclusive cafeteria environment that is reflective of the diverse student body here in Portland. The three focus groups are coordinated by Kristina Kalolo (CCFSC) along with facilitation training and support for the FFL interns so they can lead their peers in these conversations.

Professor Picardy’s USM students will conduct data analysis of the feedback to help inform the next stages of the project. Youth leadership and youth voice are centered in each step as an important part of the long-term success of this work. Last year, FFL interns conducted a survey on school meals that received feedback from over 800 students. A main takeaway was that there is a strong desire for more culturally representative and culturally important foods in school meals. This project is an extension of the findings that emerged from this student-led research.

Project members Chaleff, Kalolo, and Cowens-Gasbarro recently presented at a Maine Farm to School Network meeting about this work, with the hope that other districts across the state will be inspired and take on similar work to build more equitable and representative school meals. To learn more about how this work unfolds, you can subscribe to the FFL newsletter at foodfuelslearning.org and follow Food Fuels Learning on Facebook.

If the project is successful at the high school level, the district would consider adding culturally important menu items in the middle and elementary school lunch program in the future.