Seattle's Child

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Aaron Smith / school lunch

Aaron Smith has been praised for making school menus more relevant to SPS students’ cultural backgrounds. Photo by Joshua Huston

His mission: Keeping every child nourished

SPS's nutrition director kept hungry kids fed in a pandemic. Next up: free lunch for all.

Feeding kids and families who need help during a global pandemic is a tough job.

Seattle Public Schools’ director of nutrition services, Aaron Smith, was up to the task.

“Yeah, we ran into a lot of supply chain issues from vendors, being shorted with food and supplies, but I have a team that’s very flexible,” says Smith. “That’s something that we faced in the past as well, even during a normal school year.”

Challenges in the early days of the lockdown included getting the meals to hungry kids, and school buses were even called into service at first, delivering meals where they were needed.

Later, school sites were opened up throughout the city, getting meals out to all families who needed or wanted food, regardless of eligibility for free student lunch.   

This year things will be quite different, as all Seattle public schools will be open full time to all students once again. To ensure that every vulnerable kid is fed well, the U.S. Agriculture Department has extended universal free lunch this academic year, and no one in the district will have to pay to eat at school.

One challenge ahead for SPS Nutrition Services is having enough hands on deck to handle the expected increased demand for lunch this year.

“Going into the fall, we’re trying to make the changes we need to make because we are going into the fall severely understaffed,” Smith said in a late July interview. “So that will be a challenge coming up. We are anticipating more kids will take advantage of the program.

“One thing we really wanted to make sure we did during COVID was to not just support the families who needed the most, but also show the community, show school administrators, or the districts, or everybody, what we’re capable of doing.”

Since Smith, who trained as a chef at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Chicago,

arrived in Seattle in late 2018, he has been recognized for trying to make the SPS menu fresher and more innovative.

Recent new options at schools, he says, have included banh mi, injera (a staple bread in Ethiopian and Somali cuisine) with lentil stew, and smoked salmon chowder in a bread bowl.

“We did a lot of scratch meals. That was probably the biggest thing that we adjusted to for COVID,” Smith says.

“A lot of districts probably went to prepackaged things or sack lunches, but we went to more scratch cooking.”

He’s been praised for making school menus more relevant to SPS students’ cultural backgrounds.

“One thing: We really tried to highlight different cultures during COVID and to do something that was really authentic and respectful of their cultures,” says Smith. “So we continue with that mission. It’s pretty cool, what we were able to produce.”

Since school lunch employees usually have the summers off, a big hurdle has been the staffing issues involved in feeding a lot of hungry kids all year round during this pandemic.

Now? “Since COVID started, they work all year,” says Smith.

“They worked over the holidays,” he says. “We continued to provide meals. So when June and July hit, a lot of staff were like, ‘We really would like to have a break!’ ”

Meals continued, but this summer SPS consolidated the program and as of July 30 offered six fewer sites due to lower participation at some schools. Students affected were able to go to the remaining open school sites for meals. Also this summer, additional free meal sites were opened up at YMCAs and Boys & Girls Clubs of America, among other locations.

“Even though we closed some school sites, we still opened up other sites throughout the city,” says Smith.

For this coming year, convenience is a big buzzword, especially because of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, unusual school schedules and a move away from salad bars. The focus now is student convenience, says Smith.

“It’s just our attempt to help the schools with their scheduling, trying to find ways to speed up service without necessarily hurting the integrity of the program and product we put out there,” he says. “We’re kind of pre-making the salads already – just grab it and go – versus having the salad bar.”

Since he’s at the schools a lot, he must also be sampling the menu he’s created. What are his favorites?

Smith’s personal picks are the tamales, summer berry salad and Asian noodle salad.

Anything else?

“The brisket, anything with the brisket!” he says. “The brisket is amazing.

“I think the brisket we have is probably the best brisket I’ve had in Seattle.”

More in Feeding the Family:

Breakfast before school: How busy families get it done

Recipes | ‘I Heart Soul Food’ feast from Seattle author Rosie Mayes

Quick, healthful recipe from ‘Vegetarian Chinese Soul Food’

About the Author

Jillian O'Connor

Jillian O’Connor is managing editor of the Seattle's Child print magazine. She lives in Seattle with her husband, two sons and a dog named after the Loch Ness Monster.