By introducing exotic ethnic LTOs to the menu, K-12 by Elior’s Global Bites program encourages students to try foods that might be outside their comfort zone. But the goals of Global Bites transcend that.
Global Bites is a monthly offering that takes students on a culinary journey by presenting less-common ethnic specialties in familiar formats. The program, which officially rolled out during the 2019-2020 school year, is a way to expand the cultural diversity of school menus and to make sure offerings are more equitable across all the student populations Elior serves, says Janette Luparia, senior director of customer experience and engagement, K-12.
Another motivation is more practical: by stirring up excitement around lunch, it has the potential to spark stronger participation. A week before each LTO is offered, Elior primes the pump by offering students chef-prepared samples of the foreign fare. Even with COVID foodservice restrictions, many schools have still permitted sampling in 2-ounce souffle cups. Parents of remote students picking up meals have been offered samples as well. Student feedback—a simple “like” or “dislike” vote—is welcomed and represents an important element of the program.
Global Bites has the potential to reach past the four walls of the cafeteria as well, engaging students and encouraging dialog about foreign lands. Supporting materials include stickers and posters with fun facts about the featured country and a passport for students to track the cuisines they’ve tried along with social media content and images.
An approach like Global Bites reflects a growing curiosity about diverse cultures. In a survey of more than 2,000 K-12 students, Elior found that the appetite for a wider range of cuisines is strong. Some 70 percent of students in the survey said they would like global specials incorporated into school foodservice.
Still, getting many in the K-12 crowd to take a leap can be a challenge.
“These are big departures,” Luparia notes, “so we are trying to serve them in ways that have higher acceptability to students. We take traditional dishes and put a fun twist on it that kids will understand.” With so many students learning remotely, the ability to do creative twists has been hampered a bit, but once most cafeterias reopen those efforts will resume.
During the past school year, the menu included Teriyaki Chicken with Egg Roll (Japan), Putine with Cheesy Chicken Sausage Gravy over Fries (Canada), Beijing Chicken (China), Chana Masala (India) and Bean and Cheese Empanadas (Brazil). Elior’s culinary team developed recipes in consultation with the marketing team to make sure recipes would appeal to kids across the K-12 age spectrum. The meals have been offered across Elior’s K-12 client base, both those with standardized meals and those with onsite kitchens, and have been available to students learning from home as well.
“We wanted to make sure every student gets the same experience,” Luparia says. “In some areas of the country they may not have the opportunity to try different cultures’ food.”
Serving in familiar formats like pizza or sliders makes the items more approachable; so does incorporating fan favorites like fries, which provided the base for last year’s poutine LTO. “Poutine is not something people would consider top of mind, but we put a twist on it that students would accept,” she adds. Healthy and vegetarian options are also built into the rotation when possible.
Certain choices might have seemed a bit risky at first, but students responded well. “We had chana masala on the menu this past year,” Luparia says. “Some of the managers might have been a little skeptical, but we got rave reviews. One charter school with a large population of students who are culturally Indian were excited to see it served and gave it their approval.”
The LTOs are typically served one day a month, although some Elior clients with onsite cooking capabilities can opt to offer the meals for a longer time. The special menus cost about 35 cents more per meal to produce.
The lineup for this year is still being finalized, but Global Bites will kick off in October with Moroccan Meatballs with Couscous. Other ethnic cuisines being considered include Mongolian, Ethiopian, Dominican or Haitian, Creole/Cajun, Irish and Belgian.