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Cultural foods on the menu in Maine's largest school district

After success in Westbrook, local chefs have been gathering taste test results from students and will add three recipes to Portland lunches in the fall.

PORTLAND, Maine — Lunch came with a test Thursday at Portland High School.

Students there, and at two other district high schools, were offered a chicken and kale stew with its roots in northern African countries.

Jane McLucas is the district's food services coordinator. She said all she did was listen to her students.

"It came from the kids," she said during an interview at PHS, as students rushed to the cafeteria. "We're listening to the kids … and they said that they'd like to try something more culturally relevant."

Student volunteers had surveyed the class and resoundingly asked to add foods to the menu that more closely represented the families in a district that is 49 percent non-white and whose students speak 50 different languages.

Chefs Sam Gasbarro and Khadija Ahmed were brought on by the district as consultants and they devised the menu, including two other new dishes, for Portland.

"Do you remember when you were in high school how weird it would be for you coming from a different country? Not knowing the language, not recognizing the food, not seeing people who look like you?" Ahmed said, after feeding samples to scores of hungry kids at Casco Bay High School.

For students whose ancestors come from the regions in Africa that originated Thursday's recipe, the goal is inclusion. It's also a chance for them to share their culture with others.

"There have been students that are so interested and saying, like, 'I've never eaten this before, and I want to talk about it,' and I think that's the part that's so wonderful," Gasbarro added.

Luzia, a Portland High sophomore, said the food tasted like meals her mom would cook at home.

Ahmed smiled behind her mask when we told her what Luzia said. She reached out to Gasbarro, who was sitting next to her.

"That's a compliment to me and you now," she exclaimed to her partner in the project. "Now, Sam, we're gonna make a true African woman out of her."

The chefs promised the three new dishes would be added to the menu for the district's fall 2022 semester. 

The pair introduced their menu to the Westbrook school district first and, after success there, brought the idea to the state’s largest and most diverse district.

   

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