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Portland schools serving African-inspired dishes to boost participation in school meals

A woman wearing a brown shirt and a grey apron and woman wearing a black chef's uniform examine a box of kale.
Ari Snider
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Maine Public
Khadija Ahmed, left, and chef Samantha Cowens-Gasbarro examine a tray of kale that will be used in a North African stew. While Ahmed comes up with the recipes, Cowens-Gasbarro standardizes the recipes to meet USDA guidelines for school meals.

On a recent afternoon at Portland’s Deering High School, cafeteria workers were preparing a meal not often found on school lunch trays in Maine: North African chicken and kale stew.

It was part of a semester-long project to broaden the menu options in the state's most diverse school district.

At the center of the action was Khadija Ahmed, talking with the school's food service workers about how to portion out the spices.

"This is the spice for the chicken, and you’re making the other spice for the greens, right? So give me more for the chicken than for kale. Don’t be stingy!" Ahmed said with a laugh.

Ahmed, who is from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, works at Good Shepherd Food Bank and runs a mobile African food market.

She also came up with the recipes for this semester-long project, adding American twists to African dishes she grew up eating. In this case, using kale instead of the more traditional sweet potato leaves.

Ahmed said the meals are based on what she cooks for her own children.

"So it's, 'What will they eat? What will I send them to school with?' It's actually pretty easy to me because I just duplicate what I do at home," she said.

A woman wearing a brown shirt and a grey apron sprinkles spices onto tubs of chicken.
Ari Snider
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Chef Khadija Ahmed sprinkles spices onto chicken breast that will be used in a stew inspired by North African cuisine. Ahmed has helped schools in Portland and Westbrook add new dishes to their menus based on regional African cuisines.

After coming up with a recipe, Ahmed works with chef and school nutrition consultant Samantha Cowens-Gasbarro to standardize the meal within USDA guidelines.

The idea for this project came from Cultivating Community, a local food and agriculture nonprofit.

"The reason we wanted to kind of start this project was just looking at the school itself and how diverse it is. But also looking at the school meal and not seeing much diversity in it," said Mercia Ckaba Thomas, a FoodCorps service member at Cultivating Community.

Thomas is also a graduate of Deering High School, and remembers finding pretty standard American food in the cafeteria — things like hotdogs, breaded fish, and mac and cheese.

This semester, the district gave high school students the chance to taste-test three new dishes: kidney beans with spiced beef and cabbage slaw, chickpeas and chicken over yellow rice, and today’s chicken and kale stew.

Small cups filled with chicken and kale stew over rice.
Ari Snider
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Sample portions of chicken and kale stew over rice. The dish was based on North African cuisine, and was the third meal offered to Portland high school students as part of the semester-long project to test new dishes.

Lily Chaleff, schools and youth program director at Cultivating Community, said diversifying school meal options is about more than just representation.

"School meals, including both breakfast and lunch, are a huge point of food security," Chaleff said.

Chaleff led this project — and said one of the goals was to reduce the stigma associated with school meals by providing options that everyone can get excited about.

"So we really want students to be enjoying that and choosing to take it and getting a delicious and well-rounded meal that meets everyone's nutritional needs," she said.

In March, after sampling smashed kidney beans, spiced beef, and cabbage slaw, 83% of students who gave feedback had a positive view of the dish. But Chaleff noted that many high schoolers chose not to try the new dish at all.

A woman wearing a blue vest talks with high school students in the hallway of a high school.
Ari Snider
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Zoe Grodsky, left, with the Cumberland County Food Security Council, talks with students at Portland High School during the final taste-testing event of the semester.

Meanwhile, a similar project is underway at Westbrook High School, also thanks to the recipe development of Khadija Ahmed and Samantha Cowens-Gasbarro. The school added central African and Middle Eastern dishes to its menu rotation in December of last year, and has seen a significant increase in students choosing those options. The high school has also seen a modest increase in overall participation in school meals.

In Portland, the district’s food service director Jane McLucas was hoping for similar results. Because the district is reimbursed for school meals, McLucas says there’s a financial incentive to encourage greater participation.

"The more kids that participate in school lunch is the more reimbursement that I’ll receive  from the feds and the state and I'll have more money to do things with and be able to do projects like this and bring in other options," McLucas said.

McLucas added that the labor costs of producing these meals are higher than for the standard cafeteria meals —-but she said it's not so significant as to prevent the district from incorporating them into the menu.

Two high school school students pose at a cafeteria table.
Ari Snider
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Jose Kiala, left, and Raquel Samuel in the cafeteria at Portland High School. Samuel, who is from Angola, said she liked the chicken and kale stew, and wants the district to serve more food from other cultures on a regular basis.

Getting more students to participate in school meals depends in part on drumming up support at district-wide taste-testing days, like one held last week at Portland High School.

Sitting in the cafeteria, Raquel Samuel, a senior from Angola, just finished her sample cup of North African chicken and kale stew.

"First of all, it’s my first time trying this food," she said. "And I would say that it’s ten-ten."

A ten out of ten rating, Samuel said, for a dish she was happy to see offered at school — and she'd also like to see meals from other cultures served on a regular basis.

"I would say that it’s important because we are not going to be limited to only try the American food," Samuel said.

District-wide, 85% of students who gave feedback on the dish had a positive review, in line with the results from previous taste tests.

Based in part on this reception from students, the district is planning to add these dishes to the menu rotation next school year.

A poster board displaying the results of a student taste test.
Ari Snider
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Students were asked to give feedback on the dishes through focus groups, written responses, and by voting on boards like this one at Portland High School.