How the nutrition team at Urbandale Community School District is bringing diverse dishes to the menu

The nutrition team is working to make sure that the entire student body, which represents 20 different countries, is able to experience a taste of home when they sit down for lunch.
Students eating in the cafeteria
The Urbandale nutrition team has expanded the different types of scratch-made meals on its menu this school year. | Photo Shutterstock

Representing 20 different countries, the student body at Urbandale Community School District in Urbandale, Iowa, brings a melting pot of different languages, cultures and cuisines into the classroom each day.

That diversity has led the nutrition team to try to incorporate more culturally relevant meals into the menu to both provide familiarity to students who enjoy similar meals at home and expose their peers to different cuisines.

“[I wanted to have] students at our district be able to try something new,” says Food Service Director Jessy Sadler.

To achieve those goals, Sadler applied for and received a Healthy School Meals Incentive (HMI) grant through the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and nonprofit Action for Healthy Kids.

The grant program is intended to help small and/or rural schools increase scratch-made meal options and expand the amount of local ingredients used in menus.

Urbandale used their funding to focus on staff training and menu development to provide fresher and more culturally diverse meals to students.

Representing the student body

When setting out to revamp the menu, one of the first tasks for the team was figuring out exactly what students wanted. So, they sent out a Google survey for them to fill out.

“We got a lot of feedback for fresh food, homemade food and seasoned food,” says Sadler.

Using that feedback as a guide, the team worked on expanding its menu to include local, scratch-made options that also reflected the cultural background of students.

A Middle Eastern inspired chicken shawarma, Burmese chicken curry, sheet pan roasted ratatouille and a Somalian chicken drumstick with jollof rice are just a sample of the dishes that were served to students this school year.

Sadler and the team realize that federal school nutrition regulations can make it hard to prepare certain dishes exactly as they would be prepared in their country of origin. They try to get as close as possible to the authentic dish and make sure to point that out on the menu.

“With all the cultural meals, we say they’re inspired,” says Sadler.

In order to prepare staff to serve the new dishes, Sadler used a portion of the grant funding for training and to hire a chef consultant who worked with them on things like menu development.

“We are lucky to have everything that we need and more when it comes to equipment,” she says. “We wanted to invest more in the staff.”

Phasing in fresh produce

Along with new culturally inspired dishes on the menu this school year, high school students can also add variety of veggies to their meals from a vegetable bar.

The bar always contains items like carrots, tomatoes and cucumbers. In addition to those mainstays, the team has also begun introducing rotating options, such as daikon radishes and purple cauliflower, that are often sourced from local suppliers.

“Not only are we meeting our vegetable subgroup, we're also giving them a variety of veggies to try on a rotation,” says Sadler. “[Students] absolutely loved having the variety and being able to choose whatever they would like to choose.”

At the lower grade levels, the nutrition team is also introducing new fruit options and is slowly phasing out canned fruit for fresh.

“This year has been two days a week where [we serve] a fresh fruit,” says Sadler.  “Next year, it will be three days a week.”

Vegetable offerings have also been given a makeover. Similar to the fruit options, the team is transitioning away from using canned vegetables. Items like green beans and broccoli are now served roasted instead of steamed and are being met positively by students.

“We've seen a lot of kids take a couple of helpings of a serving because they're roasted and not steamed,” says Sadler.

Looking forward to next school year, the team will continue to serve culturally relevant meals and is looking forward to testing out new items like kimchi slaw. Sadler would also love to incorporate more fresh aromatics into dishes, including ginger and cilantro, and is looking forward to using fresh sweet potatoes, onions and other produce from the district’s garden in meals.

“We have a school garden so we're planting a lot of fall products now to utilize on our menu next year,” she says.



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