By Bonnie Rukin  | Photos by Liany Media

High school students in Portland want their lunch menus to include more foods that are culturally representative of the student body, and they appear poised to get their wish beginning with the 2022-23 school year. In partnership with a number of area organizations – including Cultivating Community, Full Plates, Full Potential, Cumberland County Food Security Council, and University of Southern Maine – staff in the Portland Public Schools Food Service department has been learning to cook some tasty new dishes from Central Africa. And students in Casco Bay, Deering, and Portland high schools have been taste-testing these foods. 

Chef Khadija Ahmed and district food service staff

The first tasting session, in March, featured smashed kidney beans with spiced beef and cabbage slaw. April’s taste test was chickpeas and chicken over jollof rice. On May 19, students tried a chicken and spinach stew. Student leaders Mercia Ckaba Thomas and Leaticia Hannah, who have led the data collection efforts from the taste testings, have been impressed by the interest of students. “They asked for something different, and are really enjoying the results,” Leaticia said. 

Khadija Ahmed, who has been a cultural foods leader in Portland for several years, is the recipe developer for this important project. Her past work has prepared her well for this project – she worked with Preble Street, making culturally appropriate meals for asylum seekers living at the makeshift shelter at the Expo Center in 2019. She runs Food for All, a mobile African food market, and she is in a newly created position at Good Shepherd Food Bank, serving new immigrants with welcoming foods from their home countries. 

The initiative is the brainchild of Food Fuels Learning, a network of school and community partners working to build food security in the Portland Public Schools. Then Ahmed and Samantha Cowens-Gasbarro, a school nutrition consultant and the executive chef for Healthy School Recipes, adapted traditional Central African cuisine into meals that meet federal nutrition guidelines. They also worked with Westbrook Public Schools Nutrition Director Mary Emerson. 

Ahmed is enthusiastic about the food tasting program because food is a powerful tool that can break down barriers and serve as a bridge between cultures. Other food activists involved in the project agree that food can be a force for social change, and can lead to a more hopeful future of racial diversity, equity, and inclusion. Lily Chaleff, lead organizer from Cultivating Community, values this program’s focus on cultural diversity and inclusive participation, as well as the involvement of youth in the initiative. Students in “Food, Power, and Social Justice,” a University of Southern Maine class taught by Assistant Professor Jamie Picardy, are conducting data analyses of the taste test feedback. The youth are involved in each step, including a survey on school meals conducted by student interns that received over 800 student responses.

Enthusiasm for the project is infectious. “Creating an inclusive food environment is heartwarming,” said Sam Gasbarro, Executive Chef and Nutritional Consultant for the Portland Public Schools. “Portland food service staff are excited about creating new food items, and the students are loving it.” She imagines this pilot program eventually going beyond Portland to schools throughout the U.S. 

Project members hope other districts across the state will be inspired by the initiative and will take on similar work to build more equitable and representative school meals. If the project is successful at the high school level, Portland Schools has said it would consider adding culturally important menu items in the middle and elementary school lunches in the future.