NISKAYUNA, N.Y. (NEWS10) — A new pilot program launching in a Capital Region lunchroom Thursday offering local students more diverse food options. Alongside the regular lunch menu at Iroquois Middle School, students could also try a tasting from Aneesa Waheed, owner of the Tara Kitchen restaurants.
Waheed says what started as a conversation about varying menus to respect students’ diet restrictions, skyrocketed into Capital Region BOCES giving her a seat at the table exploring how to get adventurous with school lunch.
“We’ve been doing a lot of diversity, equity and inclusion training, so in the middle of that, we looked at our lunch menus and realized there was so much more we could be doing,” says BOCES Shared Food Services School Lunch Director Patrick Kenneally.
“I think food has such a universally profound effect on us as human beings. It brings us comfort, it brings us joy, and without food, we would not be here, so to speak,” Waheed explains passionately to NEWS10’s Mikhaela Singleton. “It is an honor to take what I love about food and as a chef, give children a new experience.”
They decided to launch first in the Niskayuna Central School District, where Waheed has two daughters. NCSD Senior Lunch Director Megan Bates says she was enthusiastic to join the cultural diversity initiative, since she wants the food to reflect the students eating it.
“We have seen our diversity grow in school districts and kids want to see cuisines that they’re comfortable with, and they also want to try new things!” she explains.
As the lunch bell rang, students lined up out the door to sample Waheed’s Moroccan specialties, including chicken in apricot and prune sauce, Ras el Hanout-spiced green beans, and rice. Organizers say it was important to let the kids come to them.
“Well I was worried if we made it the main menu item and they didn’t like it, some students would go hungry. I find that kids are more apt to try something when they’re not forced to take it or it’s their only option,” Bates explains.
“It’s making it an event for students to try, getting them excited about it, and then doing your due diligence and working with our local partners to make sure not only is it feasible in schools, but it could be replicated on a daily basis,” Kenneally goes on to say.
Thanks to the program’s careful planning, there was no sign of a shortage as plates piled up. Kenneally and Waheed say part of the sustainability of the pilot was pairing the Tara Kitchen herbs and spices with food staples already in the school kitchen.
“It’s also showing my staff that hey, this wasn’t hard to put together and we’ll bring the sauce to you. You just have to put it on the chicken. Making it easy for the staff is huge too,” Bates says. “It makes it easier for me to plan the menu when the staff are also excited to do it.”
And as the plates and trays were cleared, students left rave reviews on a feedback sheet, writing things like “11/10”, “Amazing!”, and a cute cartoon drawing of a thumbs up.
“I really, honestly believe that food is a great vehicle for bridging cultural differences. So when you eat the food of another country, or of another people, I think it brings us closer,” Waheed says.
“I would love for them to have a conversation about what is Morocco? Where is it? What part of the world is that and how does that affect them? How they are close to these people that are 10,000 miles away, and you can use that to take away the fear of different things or different people while not forcing anything down their throats,” she goes on to say.
Now that the pilot has taken off, BOCES says they’re looking to expand students’ palates all across the Capital District.
“A lot of schools already do Mexican food items and Chinese, but we’re also reaching out to Greek restaurants, Indonesian restaurants. We’re trying to steer into new areas that haven’t been done before,” says Kenneally.