Angela Richey took the lead of Roseville Area Schools nutrition services nearly three years ago. Once she settled in, she started looking for ways to use her limited budget to introduce higher quality meals by using locally sourced ingredients and adding new recipes.
While eating lunch at a middle school in the district, Richey asked a student what he would want to see on the menu. “He was really shy,” she recalled. “All of a sudden, he turned to me and said, ‘Arroz con pollo, but Cuban style.’”
His interest hit home. Feeding a large, culturally diverse district, Richey wants to broaden her school menus to reflect that. That way, “we offer foods that are familiar or comforting to some groups of students and perhaps completely new to others. Much like nutrition education through our menus, I think our cafeterias can be an extension of the classroom and can help lead a dialogue surrounding worldly cuisine options among students of different cultural backgrounds.”
She liked the idea of adding a rice and legume recipe, since it’s a staple meal of most cultures, but which one? “We wanted to get someone who had an authentic version and could make an authentic meal out of it.”
She found that authenticity in Sharon Richards-Noel, a chef, caterer, and owner of West Indies Soul Food Truck. Richards-Noel, who also works as school chef at the High School for Recording Arts in St. Paul, agreed to share recipes beloved by her own high schoolers and served on HSRA’s “Caribbean Wednesdays.”
“Her kiddos love it. They love her,” Richey said. “Just to see how they interact with her – those kids respect her so much. She tries to make sure those kiddos have good food in their bellies.”
Spicing up lunch at HSRA
On a snowy Monday in February, Richards-Noel prepped two large pots of her own rendition of sloppy joes. She adds a touch more hot sauce before transferring the day’s entree into steel bins to add to the lunchroom serving line. She adds packets of hot sauce to the end of the line, too.
She signed a contract to cook for students at HSRA three years ago. HSRA is an alternative high school with a population that’s 94 percent students of color. Richards-Noel procures all the food, outfits the kitchen, and serves lunch. In addition to getting paid, she can use the commercial kitchen space for her catering, food truck, and homemade sauces business.
After coming to the United States from Trinidad in the 1980s, Richards-Noel has worked with kids and food in various ways. She coaxed day-care children to try different vegetables. Before joining HSRA, she worked as a cook at the University of St. Thomas. She has more freedom at HSRA to cook healthy food she thinks the kids will love.
She suspects her students like the food because it “tastes like home-cooking.” She’ll use the same brown rice as other schools and turn it into jambalaya rice. “It tastes better.”
But as any school nutrition worker knows, school lunch isn’t just about cooking what tastes good. To qualify for federal dollars, schools have to meet U.S. Department of Education nutrition guidelines. Richards-Noel doesn’t know the nutrition facts of her recipes. So when she made a connection with Roseville, she and Richey made a deal: Roseville would help her prepare for an audit, including using software to calculate each recipe’s nutrition facts. In exchange, Richards-Noel shared her recipes for curry, coconut rice, jerk chicken, and others.
Richey said the new recipes will make their first appearance in April. Before then, Richey has to pick up spices she can’t get through her regular vendor. “They carry a wide variety of options but they don’t go very deeply into spices,” she said of the Eau Claire-based vendor that primarily serves northern Wisconsin and southern Minnesota. “You can guess the typical palates they serve. Not the same as ours.”
Popular recipes that spark student conversations
This is the first time Roseville has worked with outside help to develop new recipes. She’s following other districts in the Twin Cities that have taken similar steps.
In Minneapolis, director Bertrand Weber said a popular tamale recipe sparks conversation among students at lunch tables. “It was really fun seeing our Hispanic students explaining what a tamale is. We want to create more opportunities for that.”
He said he works with a chef council to try to increase the diversity of the school lunch menu. “It will never be what mom cooks at home. To be quite honest, I’m not sure that’s what students are looking for.”
His in-school research shows students want American food as an alternative to what they eat at home. Richey, who worked at St. Paul Public Schools before moving to Roseville, recalled a similar sentiment among students there. “We tried a Karen dish once and a Karen student commented that she ate that at home every night for dinner; why would she want to eat it at school, too.”
For Roseville, which doesn’t have a chef on staff, working with Richards-Noel opens new possibilities. “I’m more than willing to pay for recipes that work,” Richey said. “We’re dipping our toes in the water here.”