NEWS

Schools Are Offering International Cuisine Lunch Options—And Kids Are Benefiting

Girl carries school lunch tray

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Key Takeaways

  • A school district in Maine is offering authentic international dishes to its students for school lunches.
  • Experts say the exposure can help students from other nationalities feel a sense of comfort and acceptance when foods they are familiar with are served.
  • Exposing students to new foods and dining experiences can help them cultivate an appreciation for other cultures.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to supply chain disruptions felt in homes, in businesses, and even in schools. When food shortages and the inability to get certain food items for lunches became problematic, school nutrition workers got creative. One school district rose to the challenge and created more inclusive menu offerings in the process.

Westbrook School District in Westbrook, Maine was recently awarded a No Kid Hungry grant. The grants are awarded to schools and community groups to help feed children, stemming from a national campaign from a non-profit group, Share Our Strength.

Thanks to the grant, school staff members introduced international items they hadn't served on their lunch menu before. The district is creating an opportunity to expose children to international culinary options for lunch at school. Experts say it is a step towards providing experiences that connect international students to home while introducing other students to new culinary experiences.

Maine Leads the Way

When Westbrook School District’s Nutrition Director, Mary Emerson, RD, received the grant from No Kid Hungry, she had two goals in mind: to fund meals to distribute to families during the pandemic and to develop a program that would have a long-term impact on the students. The expanded lunch menu options grew out of that desire.

Westbrook schools began incorporating international dishes from various parts of the world. The offerings appealed to children from the international regions, as well as kids who’d never had the opportunity to try those foods.

“Our goal is to expand our culinary offerings to entice more students to eat with us and to try new foods to expand their palates. We know that folks who eat a wider range of foods typically receive a wider range of nutritional benefits from their food,” states Emerson.

Nutritional Benefits

Beans are a highly regarded item in Mexican foods, and a number of nationalities enjoy plantains. While foods prepared abroad are often available in the United States, the method of preparation makes the final product unique to certain regions.

The hope in adding these items to school lunches is that the authentic tastes don’t just please the palate, but also bring additional nutritional benefits.

Mary Emerson, RD

Lunchrooms are the largest classrooms in schools and can provide unique opportunities to educate our students by serving foods from other cultures and creating interest in other cultures.

— Mary Emerson, RD

“Diversity in nutrition helps expand the variety of foods a person is exposed to, thus increasing the number of nutrients they receive from their diet,” explains Sandra Arevalo, a media spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics. “Eating a variety of foods in the diet is a main recommendation of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans because it helps people meet the intake recommendation of all nutrients."

According to research published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the change in nutritional standards for school lunches has given students more opportunities for healthy choices.

Exposure and Appreciation

When a student moves to the United States after living abroad, being offered foods they are familiar with for lunch at school can ease some of the challenges of adjusting to a new environment.

Foods from a variety of cultures are known for their intriguing spices and seasonings and unique tastes. Turmeric, cumin, and cardamom are frequent tastes in Indian cuisine, with mutton and chicken as favored meats. Foods from the Caribbean are often flavored with peppers and curry and use an assortment of fruits and vegetables.

“Schools are a place where our students spend a considerable amount of their awake time, and we want them to feel comfortable," Emerson notes. "Having foods that represent their cultural identities can help promote this feeling."

Children may experience a feeling of acceptance when they see other students embracing foods they may only eat at home. Those students, in turn, are exposed to new experiences and learn to embrace them. Their willingness to be adventurous and try something different can also be beneficial.

“Lunchrooms are the largest classrooms in schools and can provide unique opportunities to educate our students by serving foods from other cultures and creating interest in other cultures,” adds Emerson.

Building A Bridge

Nutrition experts note that there are some international foods that are easier to prepare than others. Beginning with these foods can build confidence in preparing a variety of cuisine options. Flatbreads, hummus, carrot rice, and yellow rice are a few good starter recommendations.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics also provides a wide-ranging list of delectable and healthy global eating options.

Yaffi Lvova, RDN

Food is a delicious way to share culture. By having access to authentic foreign cuisine, an interest in that culture could be sparked. That paves the way for increased communication and compassion between cultural groups.

— Yaffi Lvova, RDN

Westbrook School District has provided a way to build a bridge between exciting new tastes and cultural connections. Their hope is that their creative spark can blaze a trail for others.

“Food is a delicious way to share culture," concludes Yaffi Lvova, RDN, book author and owner of Baby Bloom Nutrition. "By having access to authentic foreign cuisine, an interest in that culture could be sparked. That paves the way for increased communication and compassion between cultural groups.”

What This Means For You

Opening a child’s eyes to diverse cultural experiences is valuable in many ways. Even something as simple as an international dish as a part of a school lunch can open the door to learning more about other nationalities. The experience can cultivate an appreciation for others and is a yummy educational endeavor with positive lasting implications.

 

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2 Sources
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  1. Barman A, Das R, DE PK. Impact of COVID-19 in food supply chain: Disruptions and recovery strategy. Current Research in Behavioral Sciences. 2021;2. doi:10.1016/j.crbeha.2021.100017

  2. Gearan EC, Fox MK. Updated nutrition standards have significantly improved the nutritional quality of school lunches and breakfasts. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. 2020;120(3):363-370. doi:10.1016/j.jand.2019.10.022