Seattle school lunches are getting more diverse, less processed
Lunchtime in Seattle’s school cafeterias is different than it was a year ago. There are fewer processed foods, more vegetarian options and meals that appeal to the ethnic heritages of the children eating them. This is all thanks to Aaron Smith, the district’s new director of nutritional services.
Smith moved to Seattle from Chicago last year.
“Student palates are a lot more sophisticated than what I expected!” laughed Smith. “Some of the things that kids ask for blows my mind like like sushi, huarache and chicken tinga. It makes it really fun because they’re asking for things they eat at home, things their mom cooks for them. Students are pushing us to do better.”
Smith observed that students in South Seattle often eat differently than kids in the north, so why should there be only one district-wide menu? He divided the district into five quadrants and is surveying the kids on what they like to eat.
“In the west, it’s a really high Somali population, the south really likes more southern style foods and central is a lot of Asian cuisines.”
When kids requested more vegan and vegetarian options, Smith ordered some new dishes from food vendors and invited a group of kids to the cafeteria to taste and vote on what they liked best.
“Our number one customer is the students and so they definitely should have a voice. And parents should have a voice in what they’d like their kids to eat. The biggest hit has been the tamales. We have really authentic tamales in a corn husk. The potstickers went over really well.”
One of the first changes Smith made was ditching processed chicken nuggets. He wants kids to be able to recognize real food.
“Chicken has bones! So we want to move away from processed items to natural products. We brought in actual chicken legs. We still have chicken nuggets on the menu but it’s actually a whole muscle natural product, so it’s a chicken breast chunk instead of the processed one you might see at a fast food restaurant. Same thing with the chicken sandwiches, it’s a whole muscle natural product. We’re looking at bringing in actual chicken wings and breasts and thighs. Yeah, chicken has bones.”
Greenwood Elementary School fifth grader, Corbin Fichter, doesn’t eat bones. He’s a vegetarian and a fan of school lunch.
“I’d say it’s pretty healthy. You always have to get at least one thing from the salad bar.”
Corbin, 10, is pretty conscious about what he eats. He said he decided to go vegetarian last year after watching a YouTube video.
“I honestly heard about slaughterhouses once and I thought the name was really dark so I thought I would learn something about them. So I looked it up on YouTube and that’s a really dark place to go.”
Corbin had a veggie burger for lunch, but the meat option that day was slices of tender, smoked brisket so tasty, it was honestly better than any barbecue restaurant I’ve tried in Washington state. The brisket was served with a roll and tiny, roasted potatoes with perfectly crisp skin and luscious, creamy insides. It was confusingly delicious. Smith brought me a tray of new dishes to try: steamed edamame lemongrass potstickers, a filet of wild caught Alaskan salmon, a cheese tamale and egg rolls with shredded duck, which will be served to celebrate Chinese New Year. I thoroughly enjoyed every single bite. How is this school lunch food?
“We hear all the time, ‘How do you put brisket on the menu, that’s too fancy for kids!’ It’s food, you know! Real food,” said Smith. “Their palates are way more sophisticated than what most adults think.”
Smith has been adding one new menu item every month and he plans to serve elementary, middle, and high school students different dishes, since their palates change as they get older.