Aaron Smith is ready to hit the reset button.
Coming into his job as director of nutrition services for Seattle Public Schools almost four years ago, the trained chef had ambitious plans for nourishing its nearly 49,000 students. His idea to make each child feel welcome in the cafeteria, especially immigrant children accustomed to a different way of eating, had some people scratching their heads. They wondered if Smith’s plans might violate federal regulations for food service and lunch reimbursement.
But community leaders of diverse neighborhoods welcomed him and even shared recipes. Taste testings and DIY soup bars in schools were a huge hit with students. Smith was on a roll.
We all know the next part of the story: COVID-19 and lockdown.
Supply-chain issues forced Smith to scramble and innovate in search of ingredients and equipment; communication with and outreach to students, their parents and community leaders were put on hold. Smith had to revise his plan to slice the district into five cultural regions, serving meals made from scratch and representative of the diverse cultures among students.
Revolution in the lunchroom
And yet, as he moves into the 2022-23 school year, Smith is buoyant. If there is anything this Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef knows, it is how to make lemonade when handed lemons.
With his “trial by fire” behind him and the start of the 2022-23 school year just around the corner, he is upbeat and ambitious when it comes to the future of meals in Seattle’s public schools.
“The past three years have been fun,” he says, with no hint of irony. “It’s forced us to think way out-of-the-box, to be more creative. It’s forced us to push ourselves to the limit and see what we can do. And I think overall it better prepared us for the normal year to come.”
A return to …
Let’s call it the new normal. Because Smith’s idea of normal is not about getting back to boring old school lunches, mystery meat and reheated frozen vegetables. It’s about getting back to his plan to revolutionize cafeteria fare.
He’s confident he’ll reach his goal of healthy, home-cooked school dining, especially with Chef Emme Ribeiro Collins at his side. Collins was named as district chef in September 2019 and became a household name on September14, 2021, when she won the Food Network’s “Chopped” competition.
Born in Brazil, Collins is not only helping to shoulder the myriad responsibilities of nutrition services, she is all in on Smith’s vision of seeing school meals that reflect the diversity of Seattle students. At the same time, this dynamic food duo wants to lead the district away from “kids’ menus” – the idea that kids need to eat differently than adults – despite some initial resistance from veteran staff members.
“You know,” says Collins, who is also the mother of Jade, 6, Quincy, 7, and Denise, 14, “the United States is the only place in the world where there’s this kids’ menu idea, where kids have to eat this specialized menu of food. We get used to that and so any type of change ruffles people’s feathers.”
The idea of the lunchtime feast
Collins thinks back to when she first experienced a school-lunch corn dog. She was 6 years old and a newly arrived immigrant when she first stepped into a Seattle elementary school. She stared down at the yellowish cylinder impaled on a stick and found herself homesick for the lunchtime feasts she enjoyed in Brazil.
“Our lunch back home was so different,” she says. “The lunch experience here was not a great experience. So now its full circle to be the person in charge of what to serve in school lunches in Seattle, and especially for immigrant children who are coming from different cultures to this American lunch experience.”
Stirring the melting pot
Diverse cultures in Seattle made a huge impression on Smith after his arrival here from Chattanooga, Tennessee, where he was the assistant director of nutrition services at the Hamilton County Department of Education. Before that, he was nutrition services department manager at Rockford, Illinois Public Schools, just northwest of his hometown of Chicago.
Smith says Seattle struck him as a true melting pot, compared with Chicago, where he says various cultures didn’t always mix.
“Chicago is a very diverse city but it’s a very segregated city,” explains Smith. “People just stick to their own neighborhoods. Here it’s really blended and it’s a different set of cultures. You can go to a school and see different cultures and people speaking different languages. I’d never seen it before.”
Smith was hired for his big-change energy and quickly announced a plan to divide the school district into five regions, each focusing on the cuisine of the dominant culture in that region. Over the last three years, however, he’s learned that the only constant is change.
“To say we’ll have five different menus for next year would be an unrealistic goal,” he says.
What is realistic?
“Rather than five menus, I’m working on 100 different menus!” Smith says.
By that he means that the district’s 106 schools will be given more leeway in customizing menu options. Doing so, he believes, will satisfy the tastes of more students. Last year Seattle Schools served 4.58 million meals including breakfasts and lunches.
“If we know that we’re going to have, for example, chicken wings on the menu, we’ll give the schools the flexibility to pick what type of sauce or style they’re going to make them.”
Community into meals
The pandemic interrupted his practice of meeting with students, their parents and community leaders to learn about their traditional cuisines. Until lockdown occurred, he and Collins regularly met with parents and community members to learn more about different cultures in the region. Along the way, they gathered a sizable collection of prized family recipes from many cultures and had conducted numerous taste testings. He cut his community outreach teeth with Americorps in Chicago.
“I was going door to door, talking to neighbors and youth organizations,” he says. “What I really learned from people was, ‘I just don’t want to hear talk, I need action.’ So I make sure that I try to act as quickly as I can.”
So far, so good
As Smith and Collins find new ways to march the revolution forward, immigrant children and parents say they are already happy to see their tastes and cultures represented in school meals. They are also happy to see dishes made from scratch from fresh, healthy ingredients as the rule rather than the exception. Despite pandemic hurdles, Smith and Collins are delivering what Smith first promised them back in that other age – that time in pre-pandemic 2018 when he first set foot in Seattle Public Schools.
A national inspiration
Dr. Katie Wilson has been admiring Smith and Collins and their teams at Seattle Public Schools from afar. Wilson is the executive director of the Urban School Food Alliance, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit that was created by school food-service professionals in 2012 to address the needs of the nation’s largest school districts. She said the Seattle schools’ ambitious food program so impressed her and her colleagues around the country that they actively recruited Seattle to become a member of the alliance in 2021.
“I think what they’re doing should be showcased,” says Wilson, a former deputy undersecretary of the USDA during the Obama Administration. “They have stepped up and said, ‘This is important for these children to have a successful experience in education and we want to be a big part of that.’ We’re really impressed.”
Wilson lauded Smith, Collins and their team for their bravery in bucking a system mired in bureaucratic red tape.
“I think the entire crew in Seattle has to be celebrated,” Wilson says. “But I tell you what, everything that has come out of that district lately is the most beautiful food I’ve seen.”
What’s on the table for 2022-23
Continuing on the same diverse foods path, 2022-23 menus in Seattle schools will be a far cry from the corn dogs and chicken nuggets that remain on the menus of many districts around King County. Along with those perennial school lunch items, a survey of last year’s and some upcoming menus in other districts showed a largely all-American fare: pizza, hamburgers, spaghetti, sometimes salads or salad bars. Several districts contacted for this article regarding possible innovations in their meal programs did not return contacts before press time.
In contrast, Seattle students will find things like tamales, arroz con pollo, salmon chowder, chicken banh mi, duck spring rolls, Eritrean lentil stew with injera (sourdough flatbread) and chicken and chickpea tikka masala on their plates. And yes, starting this year meals will be served on plates – just like they are in most homes – not trays.
Although all kids in Seattle Schools were offered free meals during the 2021-22 school year, in this coming year families will need to prove eligibility for free or reduced-price lunches. However, at schools where 40% or more of students qualify, meals are free to the entire student body through the federal Community Eligibility Provision. According to the district’s spokesperson, meals in 52 schools and programs will remain free to all students for the 2022-23 school year.
Looking several years into the future, Smith says he hopes whatever school his now 3-year-old daughter, Cataleya Sky, attends has by then stepped up its game.
If not, he says, “I may have to write a letter to the director of whatever that school is: ‘I don’t want to be that parent, but look, this ain’t workin’! Don’t tell me about the USDA rules. I know them. You can do this!’”
New ideas need new kitchens
As the new year rolls into action, Smith is already planning ahead to the 2023-24 school year, when the district’s new central kitchen will be completed. After that, he believes his plans can be more easily realized. With about the same square footage as the current kitchen, the new facility will include an array of top-end cooking equipment, about 10 times more equipment than is being used now.
“Chef Emme and I designed it,” says Smith. “We can do a variety of things, from sautéing to smoking, steaming — any type of cooking technique. We will be able to do it in a large batch, where it’s consistent. We want to be able to cover everything, including smoked barbecue that has a real southern taste to it.”
The new facility will also have a butcher room, so they’ll be able to process more meat, even break down whole carcasses. Versatile tilting skillets will replace steam kettles.
Farm to Table
Collins points to another silver lining on the supply-chain problems that have plagued the last few years. The pivots they necessitated, in addition to a Farm to School grant from the Washington State Department of Agriculture, paved the way to relationships with new suppliers. For example, when she needs seafood, she heads straight for the docks to buy fresh salmon from the Muckleshoot Tribe.
A recent delivery of ground beef was more personal than previous deliveries from food distributors U.S. Foods and Cisco.
“We bought about 800 pounds of ground beef from a rancher on the east side of Washington, and she drove across the pass with her truck and delivered the ground beef to us,” says Collins. “She called and said, ‘I’m on my way, I’m going across the pass right now!’ It literally came directly from the ranch straight to school.”
Both Smith and Collins have restaurant experience and both would like to see more restaurant cooks and culinary school graduates look toward a career of preparing wonderful food for school children.
“I think we’ve done a lot to change the perception of school food, especially here in Seattle, with the restaurant-quality dishes we’ve put out there,” says Collins. “As we change the perception, we get a lot more applicants from people who work in restaurants who want to come and work for us.”
Even so, there’s work to be done.
“There’s still a lot of people who, when they think of school lunch, they think of chicken nuggets,” Collins says.