Lowell’s school cafeterias serve a taste of home

Lowell's school cafeterias serve a taste of home

Now in its fourth year, the “Tasting History” project has achieved more than expected. In December, the 2020-2021 edition achieved a Founder’s Award of The Readable Feast, an annual New England culinary book festival. That win sparked a pilot collaboration between the students and Lowell Public Schools Food and Nutrition Services. Once a month, one recipe was served as a lunch option for a student group of 14,387. The students are now teaching the adults.

Alissa Haskins of Food Corps conducts an electronic food survey with freshman Sabastian Umana over lunch at McAuliffe Elementary School in Lowell.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

“I want people to get to know our culture because we have a lot of cultural diversity here in the United States. When you share your food, your culture and your experience, you introduce them to your country,” says senior Guatemalan Samantha Segura Marroquin, 19, who submitted a Christmas tamale recipe last year. Adds senior Jamilly Marques, 18, who contributed a Brazilian-style hot dog recipe this year: “When? [students] see your food, they see your land.”

The trial – which ended last week – is a success and the collaboration will continue in the autumn. Some of the dishes were so popular Michael Emmons, the food service chef, hopes to include them in a regular lunch rotation. Dishes include lok lak, a shiny peppery beef served with Cambodian salad, and feijoada, an inky black bean and pork stew served with white rice from Brazil.

Lowell Public Schools is an ideal setting for this collaboration. The student population is diverse: Hispanic (37.7 percent), Asian (27.5 percent), White (22.9 percent), Black (7.7 percent) and multi-race (4.1 percent). At least 50 languages ​​are spoken in secondary school. The four cookbooks reflect that range: 42 countries and one autonomous region are represented.

The cookbooks are the brainchild of Jessica Lander, 34, a creative history and civics English teacher who affectionately calls her students “kiddos.” Her work – including the discourse on education policy – has garnered numerous professional awards. She is also one of the five finalists for the 2023 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year† (Lander regularly writes op-eds for The Boston Globe.)

First-graders hold packed lunches at McAuliffe Elementary School in Lowell, where they serve feijoada to a recipe submitted by Lucas Alves Morena, a Lowell High School student who is originally from Brazil. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Lander arrived at Lowell High School in 2015 and conceived the cookbook project two years later while conducting her “US History 2 Seminar.” The course spans the 1870s to the present, encompassing an era when 20 million immigrants arrived in the United States.

While teaching immigration history, Lander acknowledged that her students are experts on immigrants themselves. She developed the cookbook as a means to “honor their stories and show that their stories are valuable, just as important” as those in American history books. “I wanted to use food as a story about migration,” she says.

Sometimes students had to call relatives in their native country for help with prescriptions. They learn to explain cooking techniques as well as ingredients that others may not know. Family stories introduce each dish. Operations go 15-20 rounds. Dishes are prepared at home and shared with the class.

Lander serves as photographer and editor. Publishing costs are increased by the sale of books; each is $30. “Just as we studied the stories of newcomers a hundred years ago, it is essential that we study the stories of today’s newcomers,” Lander writes in the introduction to the latest book. “These young people are an essential part of America’s future.”

Fourth grade Mina Meas is having lunch at McAuliffe Elementary School in Lowell, where they served feijoada from a recipe submitted by Lucas Alves Morena, a Lowell High School student.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

When Alysia Spooner-Gomez, the district’s food service director, learned of the win last winter, she urged Emmons to tap into the cookbook because, she says, “it would be a shame to do nothing.” †The Lowell Sun reported in January that the school committee asked food services to develop a feedback program because students and families have complained about school meals over the years.)

Emmons, known to students and educators as “Chef Mike,” joined the district last fall after serving as a sous chef for Google in California. He was eager to pay tribute to the students’ recipes. “We wanted to be culturally receptive and step into another world,” he says.

Once a recipe is selected, Emmons adjusts it for scale and financial usefulness. Then he takes it to Lander’s class for taste testing. The students are quick to tell Emmons if his early drafts don’t live up to their expectations. “Giving the kids a voice at mealtime is the most rewarding part of this project,” he says.

Spooner-Gomez prepares in-house marketing with flyers about the student and their dish and then shares background information about the meals with the faculty. Lunch, like breakfast, is free in Lowell public schools through a federal low-income district program.

Feijoada, which was recently served for lunch at McAuliffe Elementary School in Lowell.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Lander’s students are impressed with the results. “I’m so excited that a lot of people like it,” says junior Nempisey Pout, 18, who submitted a lock of lacquer recipe. “The most important thing is that I share my culture and Khmer food with students from other countries.”

Next spring, the “Tasting History” cookbooks will be part of a new third-grade social studies class called “Lowell, Then, and Now.” Lander says the class will include videos of some high school students talking about their recipes and migration trips.

The students’ own stories – through food – are now part of local history.

Peggy Hernandez can be reached at: [email protected]† Follow her on Twitter @Peggy_Hernandez