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Making a school menu more diverse

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As food and nutrition services director for Cambridge Public Schools in Cambridge, Mass., Mellissa Honeywood and more than 60 employees work to provide students with locally sourced meals that reflect the district’s diverse population. Honeywood spoke with FoodService Director about how she and her team are diversifying the school lunch menu while helping to reduce wait times and food insecurity.  

Q: How have you used online ordering to help alleviate lunch wait times?

We have two deli stations at our high school because it’s the one high school we have for the district, so there’s pretty high demand. To help cut down on the wait time, students can preorder their sandwich the day before. That way, in the morning, my staff can print out the orders and make them. Instead of [students] having to wait in line and then have a sandwich prepared in front of them, they can just pick it up at the deli station and … pick up whatever other items they want and go straight to the cash register to help alleviate the line.

Q: Can you share a little bit about your international flavor series?

We have a lot of families that are here for fellowships or are recent refugees. Our [community engagement team] meets with those families, just to talk about their experiences as parents within the school district, and while they’re having those meetings, they ask if there are any food items that they would like to see offered in the school meals program. We then take those recipes, and we try them out and we make sure we can tweak them so they can fit school nutrition standards while still maintaining their authenticity. We then try them out at all the schools throughout the district and use that as an opportunity to make changes if need be, and then we actually fold those into our menu cycles.

All the recipes that we get through the international flavor series, none of those are prepackaged. ... Just by virtue of modifying our menu to be more inclusive and represent the diversity of our community, we have also increased [the] amounts of fresh prepared meals that we [serve].

Q: What are some steps your district is taking to address food insecurity?

In Cambridge, around 40% of our students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. We also want to do a better job of accommodating the families that don't technically qualify to get reduced-price meals but are probably struggling to make ends meet due to the cost of living in such a district.

One thing that we're planning to do is purchase a food vacuum sealer. That way, we can make better use of the leftover meals that we prepare and either do a better job of packaging those so that they can be offered later on in the menu cycle or create individual meals so that way we can send [them] to our backpack program.

We also have a monthly food bank where we get food from a big partner and then we set up these huge markets and coordinate it at the schools. Families who may be experiencing food insecurity don't have to go to a separate place, they can just come as they pick up their child from school, stop by the market and can get anything that they might need. There’s no cash transactions, no sign-up list, you just come in and get what you want.

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