When you think of school lunch, you might think of mystery meats or mass-produced pizza. It might not be falafel that first comes to mind.
Yet that’s just one of the meals that Matthew Poling, the executive chef of Weld County School District Six, is stirring up in the kitchen.
With more students of different races and ethnicities entering Greeley schools, Poling and his staff have been trying to add more menu items that reflect the people eating school lunch. While it might not be mom’s best red curry or the most authentic enchiladas, they’re finding new fans, and exposing students to spices they might not have tasted before.
The first step in determining what food to make is to figure out who you’re serving. There’s demographic data available, but it’s pretty general.
“It's more ethnicity than country of origin,” says Jeremy West, the nutrition services director for the district.
This makes a big difference. While Mexican food is often spicy, Colombian food is not, and people from both of those countries would probably identify as Hispanic or Latino once they reach the U.S.
Still, West and Poling are careful to clarify that accuracy is not necessarily the goal here. After all, they’re working with children, who can be some of the pickiest eaters out there.
“Students have to eat it, so they have to like it,” says West. “We have a whole 20 step process of how we test a recipe item, whether it's an ethnic dish or not.”
One concept that made it through the testing is Middle East Feast, which is served bar-style.
“It’s got things like chicken kabsa,” says Poling, “and kafta which is a lamb or beef meatball or patty in a yogurt red curry sauce.”
Poling tested the Middle East Feast at Greeley West High School, and said there was a moment where he got nervous because some of the kids who were trying the food were more familiar with it than he was.
“You can tell they’re saying like ‘Psh that’s not going to hold up to my standards,’” he recalls. “But you can see their faces light up and say, ‘Hey! That kinda tastes like home.’”
The biggest change to Poling’s kitchen was the spice collection, which went from about 15 spices to closer to 30. Now he keeps spices like turmeric, lime juice powder, cardamom and coriander on hand; all of which you might have been hard pressed to find in a school kitchen a few years ago.
The new spices make it easier to cut back on sodium, keeping the new meals in line with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s requirements for school lunch. For example, he ran a demonstration at Greeley West showing how students could simply stir-fry some vegetables with curry powder and a spoonful of minced garlic, to cut back on salt and fats.
When it comes down to it, diversifying the menu is more about trying to increase the number buying school lunch.
“The whole reason the school lunch program has been implemented is because lots of kids aren’t eating when they go home,” says Poling. “I think the stat is that two-thirds of what a child eats is what they’re eating during their school day.”
So far, Poling hasn’t received many complaints from the students about the new flavors. Everyone commented on the smells of curry and garlic that filled Greeley West during Poling’s demonstration.
“It’s good!” says Clint Elzey, one student. “I’m not that crazy about it though.”
Elzey isn’t a fan of zucchini, and after his third sample, he decided the curry powder was a little bit too spicy.
Another student commented that while they were tasty, her family was more likely to boil their vegetables than to stir-fry them. The curry powder was something she hadn’t even thought to put on vegetables.
“Part of it is expanding our home culture’s taste buds or their palates,” says Poling. “These kids are the future foodies of the world.”