“Being able to share the different cultures of our diverse student body through our food in the cafeteria is really important,” said Seattle Public Schools Executive Chef Emme Collins.
Collins has led a new district initiative to introduce culturally relevant meals with locally sourced ingredients into the school’s lunch menus. This initiative has pushed culinary services to test out new recipes, collaborate with local farms and food vendors, and engage the 52,381 students enrolled at Seattle Public Schools.
Through these collaborations, they have been able to successfully serve highly requested meals such as Pacific Northwest gumbo using salmon from the Muckleshoot Tribe, braised shiitake and bok choy using produce from Sno-Valley Mushrooms and Radicle Roots Farm, chickpea tikka masala with veggie samosas, and duck spring rolls to celebrate the Lunar New Year.
Taste of SPS
Aaron Smith, who was hired in 2019 to be the nutrition director at Seattle Public Schools, shared a similar vision with many families and students for culturally relevant lunches with quality ingredients. To achieve this vision, the culinary team came up with a new approach called “Taste of SPS” that introduces students to new culturally diverse meals by offering a featured monthly menu item.
To ensure the program is sustainable and available at all schools, the made-from-scratch meals are prepared in small batches and served to 10 schools at time, with schools and meals rotated every month.
“The ‘Taste of SPS’ is a program where we serve a special dish of the day using as many local ingredients as we can, and every month rotates to a different school,” said Collins.
Collins said the Taste of SPS program has made students feel like the district cares about their cultural needs and has helped in created a unique a sense of belonging and excitement for school lunches.
“I visited Rainier Beach the other day and the assistant principal told me a story about the day we served chickpea tikka masala and a student of Indian heritage was so excited to see food he grew up with, in the menu. It was such a big deal and a great moment for them,” said Collins.
Identifying culturally diverse meals to 106 schools in the district may seem intimidating but for Collins and the rest of the SPS Culinary Services team, it’s quite simple and comes down to one thing: feedback. Since 2019 the culinary team has been engaging students, families, and cultural groups through open feedback to identify meals and ingredients they would like to see more of.
“We encourage feedback,” Collins said. “I mean, they are customers just like with any business, you want to know what your customer wants and you want to get that information and also do something with it. You know, build that trust, ‘we’re listening to you, this is what you want, this is what we’re going to give you,’” said Collins.
After receiving the feedback, the culinary team identifies cultural meals that are possible to make with local farmers and vendors, then does a series of recipe testing to ensure that the meals are flavorful and inviting, and meets USDA requirements for the National School Lunch Program.
This open feedback process has helped the culinary team identify local food vendors for collaboration, particularly from farmers and food producers that identify as Black, Indigenous, or from other communities of color. This had led to meals being made in the 2021-2022 School Year with ingredients from local farmers and food vendors like Sherman’s Pioneer Farm, Black Farmer’s Collective, Sky Island Farm, Grace Harbor Farms, Alvarez Farms, Afella Jollof Catering, at Spice Bridge and many more.
The City of Seattle’s Office of Sustainability & Environment, with funds from the City’s Sweetened Beverage Tax, is partners with SPS Culinary Services and Taste of SPS by helping make connections with local farms, and providing some funds that support more local, sustainable, and equitable purchasing. SPS Culinary Services also partners with the City of Seattle to offer a free Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program at 12 schools, also using more Washington grown produce.
“The best thing about working with these local farmers and local small businesses, is that they’re passionate about what they do. So it’s a great relationship and it’s great to see them pour their love into the ingredient and into foods that they’re selling to us,” Collins said.
When asked about what people can do to support the Taste of SPS and the work that is being done by SPS Culinary Services, Collins said: “If you are a student or have a student in SPS, make it known to your school administration, school board and school community about how important you believe it is to have local, scratch made and culturally relevant foods available for you or your child.”