Registered dietitian Angela Richey makes it a point to eat with the students of Minnesota’s Roseville Area Schools as often as possible and chat with them about school meals. And during a few recent lunches, several of her dining companions asked for something a little unusual: More global fare.
“We still have a fair share of neophobes and picky eaters that would be happy with a hamburger, chicken nuggets or slice of pizza every day,” says Richey, who serves as Roseville’s director of nutrition services. “But we have another group of students who crave bold flavors, spices and items that they need a fork to eat.” One boy wanted Cuban-style arroz con pollo. A group of girls were hoping for more eggs, tortillas and potatoes on the breakfast menu, just like what they ate in their Latino households. And an elementary schooler and a high schooler both asked for pho.
These kinds of requests might seem unexpected, but they weren’t surprising to Richey. “We have a very diverse district. There are 74 languages other than English spoken in our students’ homes, which accounts for 31% of our students’ households,” she says. Driven by Roseville district’s mission of “equity in all we do,” she felt the time was right to update the school menus with some international flavors.
The idea became a reality when Richey connected with local chef, caterer and West Indies Soul Food Truck owner Sharon Richards-Noel. Richards-Noel, who also prepared lunches for the nearby High School for Recording Arts (HSRA), agreed to share some of her student-approved meals with Richey. “It was a match made in heaven,” Richey says.
Richey and Richards-Noel opted to give Roseville students a taste of Richards-Noel’s Jamaican jerk chicken drumsticks, curried rice and Caribbean black beans, which are already served at HSRA. The only issue? Richards-Noel didn’t know the nutritional facts. So before the dishes could make it onto the menu, they needed to be analyzed to see that they fit the USDA’s nutrition guidelines. “We had to verify the yield of her recipes, ensure that the serving size was appropriate for each age group and cross-check with the USDA food-buying guide to ensure all components were met,” explains Richey.
As it turned out, all three recipes met the nutritional guidelines as they were written. So only a few modifications needed to be made. “When you scratch cook and use real herbs and spices, you don’t need a lot of fat and salt to get flavor. These recipes are healthy by nature,” Richey says. Rounding out the meals with other components required by the USDA to make a complete lunch was a breeze. With the black beans counting as the vegetable component, Richey just had to add a side of fresh fruit and milk. After that, it was only a matter of dialing back the heat for younger students. “Our elementary schools may go easy on the jerk seasoning to make sure the chicken isn’t too spicy,” she explains.
Speaking of seasoning, tracking down the right herbs and spices ended up being Richey’s biggest challenge. Roseville’s vendor didn’t carry the Jamaican jerk seasoning that Richards-Noel’s recipe called for, so Richey ended up sourcing it from a different vendor. “But otherwise it was smooth sailing,” she says.
The recipes will debut at all of Roseville’s schools April 4th. Digital menu boards at the high schools are already spreading the word about the new additions, and Richey has posted pictures of the dishes on Facebook. “We’ve generated some positive buzz on social media,” she says. There are some naysayers too, though. In response to a recent Minnesota Post article on the menu changes, one parent mused that the new dishes will fail and kids will “just throw more and more food away.”
But those kinds of comments don’t deter Richey. “We’re hopeful they’re as excited as we are to try out new recipes, new flavors and a new perspective on our menu,” she says. “The true test will be on menu day.” Richey is open to making modifications to the recipes based on student feedback.
And if the dishes are a hit, she’ll be serving them again. “Through food, you can learn about other cultures and broaden your horizons,” Richey says. “While food varies from country to country and even household to household, it can be a great unifier.”