South Portland Food Corp Member Crystal Tovar Tellez talking with students about local fish. courtesy photo/Sophie Scott

SOUTH PORTLAND — Guest chef Khadija Ahmed joined students at Waldo T. Skillin Elementary School Jan. 25 to share cultural dishes featuring locally sourced seafood. Ahmed, a key participant in the Connecting Cafeterias to Culture and the Classroom project, presented Acadian redfish with coconut lime red sauce and rice, bringing a taste of her home country in Africa to the school.

Khadija Ahmed is a community leader, food justice activist, and creative chef. Ahmed, along with Chef Sam Cowens-Gasbarro and other community members including Iraqi chef Huda Khalil and Cambodian chef Theavy Kheam developed several different recipes for the K-12 space. The recipes can be found at the Local Sea to School Resource Hub website,

The Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) initiated the Connecting Cafeterias to Culture and the Classroom project with the overarching goal of building demand for and increasing consumption of local seafood in K-12 schools.

“Our mission at GMRI is to develop and deliver collaborative solutions to global ocean challenges, and one challenge that we were facing here in our region was that our local seafood was competing in a massive global marketplace, one in which we import 70-90 percent of the seafood that we eat in this country,” said Sophie Scott, sustainable seafood program manager at GMRI.

The project trains food service staff to boost the purchase of local seafood in school cafeterias. The training focuses on engaging staff by highlighting the benefits of local seafood and includes a cooking demonstration. Pre- and post-workshop surveys show a significant increase in staff confidence and skills in serving local fish, as well as their belief in students choosing local fish on the menu.

Scott said the history and culture of Maine are integral components of the Gulf of Maine fisheries. She said many South Portland students are coming from places in the world where they eat much more seafood than the average American. Though this initiative centered on developing culturally diverse school menus, students are provided with familiar protein options and preparations.


South Portland Crew. Sophie Scott, Shawn Perry, Deb Wood, RayJean. courtesy photo/Sophie Scott

“Local seafood is arguably the most nutritious protein you can put on the cafeteria tray,” Scott said. “It’s rich in omega-3s, vitamins and minerals, all of which support our brain, heart, and bone health. Eating local seafood helps to support our local community and economy and is a climate-friendly protein to boot.”

The “three Cs” of farm-and-sea-to-school are cafeteria, classroom, and community. “And when you bring all three together, you have greater success in serving local foods in schools,” Scott said. “The ‘three Cs’, cafeteria, classroom, and community, are crucial. When you bring all three together, you have greater success in serving local foods in schools.”

The endeavor aims to integrate locally sourced seafood into school curricula, create culturally diverse recipes, and empower food service professionals to champion healthy, nutritious seafood options for students.

Ahmed played a pivotal role in this initiative, described by Scott as a “brilliant community leader, food justice activist, and creative chef.” “Khadija, along with Chef Sam Cowens-Gasbarro and other community members, developed several different recipes for the K-12 space,” Scott said.

The recipes, including the Acadian redfish with coconut lime red sauce, were crafted to offer immigrant students and those from diverse backgrounds a familiar protein, flavor, and preparation.

The curriculum, which was piloted in South Portland, Westbrook, and Lewiston for middle school students, successfully bridged the gap between what is served in the cafeteria and what students learn in the classroom.


Abby Chase, a teacher in Westbrook, expressed her enthusiasm about the project: “It’s always nice to connect content to the community, a current problem, or have a greater purpose, and this module does that.”

In examining the impact on students, Chase shared some of her observations about the event: “As a parent, I definitely want to introduce my toddler to seafood more regularly. I have lived in Maine/coastal areas my entire life, and as a child, I never knew much about the seafood industry The idea of ‘catching them young’ really spoke to me, because I never did develop a taste for fish having never experienced it much as a child, so I now totally see the value in offering it in school cafeterias. A majority of our students are economically disadvantaged, and food security is a major issue that WMS is trying hard to remedy.”

Chase said she loved learning what is safe to eat and what is not and why

The project not only enhanced students’ understanding of seafood but also extended beyond the classroom to the school cafeteria. Training provided to food service staff played a crucial role in facilitating the purchase of local seafood by school cafeterias. “When food service staff are excited and engaged around the local seafood they prepare and serve, there is greater meal participation from students, which results in greater sourcing at the district level,” Scott said.

Participants in the training reported increased confidence in serving local fish, with 75 percent feeling more confident post-training. The project aimed to create awareness of the health, community, and economic benefits of serving local seafood, fostering a positive environment for both staff and students.

As Ahmed brought her cultural dishes to Skillin Elementary, the Connecting Cafeterias to Culture and the Classroom project continued its mission of creating a bridge between local seafood, diverse recipes, and the educational experience of K-12 students.

For more information about the Connecting Cafeterias to Culture and the Classroom project, visit

Results of the Skillin taste test. courtesy photo/Sophie Scott

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