Indigenous peoples food programming at Maine universities highlights the importance of culturally accurate menus

Maine Course by Sodexo hosted a variety of events in October that showcased indigenous cuisine. Here’s a look at what went into making sure the programming was culturally accurate.
Food offered at the event with educational materials
Some menus lasted a week at certain universities while others were featured for a day. | Photos courtesy of Sodexo.

When foodservice provider Sodexo decided to put on events at its Maine universities honoring the culture of indigenous people, particularly the Wabanaki community, the team wanted to make sure its programming accurately reflected their culture.

Sodexo’s universities in Maine, which the company dubs Maine Course, maintain a focus on partnering with the local community, said Judith Blatchford, program assistant for Maine Course by Sodexo. One such community that is often overlooked, noted Blatchford, are the Wabanaki tribes.

“We don't have a lot of sources, food sources, at the institution that are provided by Wabanaki providers [or] producers, and so this was a way to try to engage that community as well as educate and share with the university,” she said.

Maine Course’s diversity, equity and inclusion committee helped to spearhead the series of events. The team worked together to identify the best way to elevate Wabanaki voices and do so in a respectful and accurate way. Here’s a look at the events and the work that went into making them happen.

Elevating Wabanaki voices

The idea for the events was sparked about two years ago. Jenni Tilton Flood, a dairy farmer and a member of the advisory committee said the team put a lot of thought into making sure the events would be done right, which meant some learning was necessary.

Flood noted the team didn't want to assume they knew best how to prepare the food. In addition, they wanted to make sure they were properly describing the history behind the menu items. And, they wanted to create a partnership out of the event to include these menu items again in the future. 

So, the team started with research. They invited several Wabanaki leaders to lead lunch-and learns, noted Amy Winston, another member of the advisory committee who works for Crystal Enterprises, a community development financial institution.

“And so, through that I developed a couple relationships and one of those folks wound up introducing us to someone who has joined the committee, so I guess those are, from my perspective, a little bit of how we got going on this,” said Winston.

To get the events off the ground, the team reached out to several members of the Wabanaki community, including students who are a part of the Student Alliance of Indigenous Peoples group at the University of Southern Maine. It was a collaborative process, and the team met with the community members several times.

students in line The team collaborated with Wabanaki students on the programming. 

They interviewed the students to discuss their perspective on certain menu items as well as to learn about what food they grew up with, especially food that was associated with fond memories. They also discussed challenges in sourcing the products. In some cases, it was difficult to get the students families to open up and share their personal history behind the food. 

“Because for so long they were told that they had to put aside their culture,” said Blatchford, who noted that building trust was essential. 

The team also collaborated with some professors in the University of Maine system.

In developing the menus, the team took guidance from the numerous sources they had reached out to, but making sure the menu was culturally accurate proved to be a bit of a challenge. For instance, there is some debate within the Wabanaki community as to the connotation of a certain menu item called fry bread. The food was developed post-colonization and it was created because members of the tribe were provided with minimal resources and their hunting grounds were taken away, said Blatchford. Which means for some Wabanaki people, it is associated with a difficult time in history. But for others, it represents a time of resilience, she noted.

Fry Bread Fry Bread. 

“[The two students that we interviewed] talked about how fry bread is really important at their house and it's used in multiple ways. You know, it's used almost plane with a blueberry sauce or use almost like a taco, inserted with the food on it,” she said.

So ultimately, the team decided to menu fry bread.

A look at the menu

When developing the menu, the team tried to use as many local Maine ingredients as possible, such as local blueberries, but there were some restraints.

Corn cakes with blueberry sauce. Corn cakes with blueberry sauce. 

“We have certain parameters, there are things that we can’t do, like I mentioned, we can’t use any sort of wild game, things like that, so what could we do that could honor you know, indigenous, culinary ways?” said Blatchford.

The event took different forms at different universities. Some universities hosted weeklong programming featuring menu items with flyers detailing the history behind the item, where others featured the menu items and educational material for one day. Some events also included storytellers and music.

Some menu items on offer were corn mush with blueberry sauce or salmon served with a maple glaze because prior to colonization, indigenous tribes often used maple syrup rather than sugar, said Blatchford.  

Another part of the programming was a flag raising. In the future, the team hopes to integrate more of Wabanaki storytelling into the events.

While the events were focused on indigenous people’s food, the real goal behind the initiative was to highlight the stories behind the food, noted Flood. Moving forward, the team hopes some of the items on offer will make it to the regular menu.

“What our hope is that now that [students have] been introduced to these items, they will become a part of the regular menu and that's what we're hoping to achieve by trying to bring in more resources and vendors,” she said.



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