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Improving school lunch: Meet Aaron Smith, Seattle schools' new nutrition director

Aaron Smith brings new ideas to Seattle school cafeterias.



As you scratch supplies off of  your back-to-school shopping list, there’s one item Aaron Smith hopes you won’t buy: a lunch box. Smith is entering his first full school year as nutrition services director for Seattle Public Schools. When he moved from Chicago to take the position last November, he brought his innovative ideas with him.

First up, Seattle schools will no longer have the same menu across the board.

“I’m working on breaking Seattle up into five regions, and as the year goes on and as we get feedback from those areas, we’re going to slowly start customizing and adding to the menu based on those students.”

This approach takes into consideration the taste buds of kids from a variety of cultural backgrounds, while also leaving room open to introduce new cuisines. Smith says he knows that in one region, 70 percent of prefer like a mostly Hispanic menu.

“That will be their base menu, but we’ll add a second option that might be Asian, Somali or American, so that they’re exposed to and see something different.”

Other changes include dropping the hot option at the elementary level from three to one; instead, daily options will include a sandwich, a yogurt combo, and one hot entrée with a cooked vegetable.

“We want to have more of a complete meal, something you’d eat at home,” says Smith. "I’m not a fan of that fast compartment tray, because you don’t eat off a tray at home, you eat off a plate.”

A new item for that lunch is a smoked, sliced beef brisket served with a piece of corn on the cob. Smith says the district has also formed a relationship with Trident Seafoods to bring in wild Alaskan salmon and cod. They’re switching from highly processed chicken patties to a natural, whole muscle chicken sandwich like something from the restaurant chain Chick-fil-A and dropping boneless wings for a bone-in variety.

“I don’t believe in boneless wings. Chickens have bones,” Smith says with a laugh.

Above all, Smith says he needs to listen to the students. He knows that “taste buds change” during the transitions from elementary to middle to high school.

Though exciting, parents shouldn’t expect to see updated cafeteria options just yet. Creating a new menu and thoughtfully implementing changes in every Seattle school is a slow process. Distributors need a several-months-long lead time to procure and supply the new ingredients.

“Starting out the school year, the menu will be similar to last year,” says Smith. “I didn’t know much about Seattle and Seattle culture, and just didn’t want to come in and make random changes without any data to support it.”

“We’re testing out things and checking responses from students in the communities and trying to customize that menu; 53,000 students, not all of them eat hummus. Not all of them eat chicken. We need to find out the best way to support their needs.”


If you're packing your own lunches:

8 tips for simplying the lunch-packing routine

How to pack a nutritional lunch for a too-short lunch period


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