Milad Al Mukhtar’s 15-year-old daughter, Dimah, is like most high schoolers – she likes pizza.

But she also likes fruits and vegetables, and wants more than pizza for lunch at Westbrook High School. She says she wants more healthy options, like the Iraqi food her mother serves at home.

Dimah’s 11-year-old sister, Minah, doesn’t like the food in middle school as much as she did in elementary school, her mother reports, although the allure of fish sticks seems to cross all age and cultural barriers. Sometimes she takes a snack with her to school, just in case she doesn’t see anything appealing on the lunch menu.

But things are changing in Westbrook schools, beginning with a project the school nutrition department has been working on all year to introduce the more culturally appropriate foods desired by immigrant students, foods that can also open American-born students’ eyes to a wider world of tastes and textures.

Mary Emerson, school nutrition director for the Westbrook School District, won a $26,000 No Kid Hungry grant that must be used for two things: One, it’s funding remote school lunch meals during the pandemic, including bulk food deliveries to students who are still learning at home or have to be quarantined. The other half of the money is to be used to promote cultural diversity in food.

A training session in cooking culturally appropriate food at Westbrook schools. Photo by Lynn Gnade

The school district hired Maine chef Samantha Cowens-Gasbarro, a well-known school nutrition consultant who works with schools on a national level to create healthier – but still kid-friendly – school lunch menus that don’t break budgets. Cowens-Gasbarro has been training Westbrook staff in cooking techniques and helping them develop more culturally appropriate recipes that will appeal not only to immigrant students but to their classmates as well, and still meet school nutrition guidelines.


She said Westbrook is well ahead of other Maine school districts in this area, which is especially remarkable given the challenges posed by the pandemic, including supply chain issues, remote learning, and the fact that so many schools have a different “feeding model” at lunch time, from traditional cafeteria lines to the delivery of food to homes or the classroom. She said the project is “a testament to (Emerson’s) dedication to her students and the profession.”

“She just really wants to create this change and make this all-inclusive for her students,” Cowens-Gasbarro said.

Emerson said she was inspired to push forward with the program because of what she saw sometimes when she’d visit school cafeterias – students who weren’t eating.

“I mean, that’s the most heartbreaking thing you can have being in school lunch, is to go into these cafeterias and see kids not eating,” she said. “For me, it was middle school boys. I’m just concerned, why aren’t they eating? They have a long day to go without eating.”

Granted, their reasons for not eating varied. Some were waiting to eat with their friends. (Middle school boys, apparently, like to eat off each others’ plates.) Others told her they waited until after school to eat. But she also knew that for students whose families are recent arrivals to this country, sometimes the food is just too unfamiliar.

“I want to be respectful of all of my students,” Emerson said, “and so I think it’s nice to showcase foods from all kinds of cultures and not just simple, you know, teriyaki chicken. Just try to have a variety of foods. That’s important for kids to be exposed to.”


Emerson said about 20 percent of the Westbrook student body overall are English language learners, although it’s a little higher in the elementary school. The immigrant community includes families from various regions of Africa, largely the Democratic Republic of the Congo but also Ethiopia and Somalia, and the Middle East, mostly Iraq.

Timman Jizar, a carrot rice dish with roots in Iraq, is one of the recent additions to the Westbrook Middle School lunch menu. Photo by Lynn Gnade

The Westbrook staff began its training last spring by focusing on rice dishes. (There have been three trainings so far, and a third is scheduled for early October.) In American schools, a lot of the rice that’s served is steamed rice, and there’s a lot of rice pilaf, Cowens-Gasbarro said. In Westbrook, they’ve begun serving a more flavorful rice in the middle school that contains shredded carrots, a dish called Timman Jizar that has roots in Iraq.

“You don’t have to cook it with just water,” Cowens-Gasbarro said. “Let’s give it sweetness and sweeten with carrots. So we have carrots, tomato and cinnamon in it, creating flavor without adding a lot of fat, sodium and salt.”

Making a school menu that better reflects the world on a really tight budget can be challenging if a school has students from a wide variety of cultures, school nutritionists say. One of the most popular new dishes in Westbrook so far is a simple yellow rice that crosses a lot of international boundaries. The rice gets its color from turmeric and is seasoned with chicken stock, a small amount of butter, garlic powder and onion powder.

“It’s very mild,” Cowens-Gasbarro said, “and can become a base for things like a shawarma bowl.”

Other dishes haven’t worked as well. The staff at Westbrook tried making Middle Eastern Hashweh rice, which contains beef and is often used as a stuffing for peppers or a pita pocket. It’s seasoned with allspice and served with a yogurt sauce. Sounds good, right? But the staff ultimately decided it was too much, Cowens-Gasbarro said.


“In order to really create change in a school nutrition department,” she said, “you have to have the staff be invested in what they’re doing and why they’re doing it and be proud of what they’re serving.”

Falafel – one of the foods that Milad Al Mukhtar would like to see in Westbrook schools – also flopped. That’s because the chickpea patties were baked instead of fried, as they are traditionally. The Westbrook schools don’t have a deep-fryer.

The next phase of training will focus more on entrees and bring two new chefs into the mix. Westbrook has enlisted Khadija Ahmed, who has worked for Preble Street and operates the African Mobile Market, which supplies African groceries to new Maine immigrants. Kelly Donohoe is a Head Start chef.

Cowens-Gasbarro said Khadija is working on developing dishes that fuse the American foods that immigrant children want to try with traditional African foods. “She’s creating fusions within her own kitchen to keep her kids interested in eating,” Cowens-Gasbarro said. “It’s going to be fun to get in the kitchen with her and learn how she’s cooking for the community on a day-to-day, boots-on-the-ground basis.”

Getting a Head Start chef involved is important because introducing foods from other cultures is easier if it starts at a young age, Cowens-Gasbarro said.

Emerson gets into the van that delivers student bulk groceries to the homes of students who are learning remotely. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Milad Al Mukhtar said that in addition to falafel, she’d also like to see more rice and halal chicken and other halal meats in the schools. Her family is one of those who is currently receiving weekly deliveries of groceries from the Westbrook School District through its bulk grocery program. During the pandemic, with the schools offering various hybrid models for learning, school lunch has sometimes meant going through a drive-through pick-up line or having food delivered at home, where the families could use the ingredients to make their own lunches, Emerson said.


Last year, Emerson said, “we had a family that did not speak any English. They were new immigrants to this country, and they have five children and they were always remote learners and didn’t come into the buildings at all. Seventeen percent of our students last year did that.”

Using an interpreter, they talked to the family about what their needs were. “They wanted more lentils,” Emerson said. “They wanted more dried beans. These were foods that they requested, and so we were able to provide the foods that they wanted in their home – lots of vegetables and fruits. And there were some onions and things like that that we wouldn’t typically send with a kid. Swiss chard, and those type of things that might be a little more scary to the typical American kid.”

Cowens-Gasbarro said she thinks Westbrook is laying the groundwork for more culturally sensitive school lunch programs that create “healthy eaters that are aware of all these different foods and how delicious foods can taste in a wide variety of cultures.” She, for one, believes that the food of Maine’s indigenous people should be on the menu as well, right along with the usual mac-and-cheese and chicken nuggets.

“That should be a part of our food culture,” she said. “It shouldn’t be an exception or something special. This is a part of who we are in Maine.”

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