About six months into the job, the new food-services director for Seattle Public Schools has a lot on his plate.
Aaron Smith, who joined the state’s largest school district after working in schools in Illinois and Tennessee, oversees a department that serves nearly 24,000 breakfasts and lunches to students every day. But about one in four students still skip lunch during school each day and only one in six feel full after eating school lunch, according to a recent survey conducted by the local nonprofit Food Empowerment Education and Sustainability Team, or FEEST. The group advocates for better health in public schools.
On its face, Smith’s department might just appear to be focused on healthy eating and learning. But for him, the new job presents an opportunity to change how lunch menus affect a school’s climate — a sense of how safe and included students feel there. The FEEST survey, for example, found 73 percent of students would eat school lunch more often if they had access to fresher items and more variety.
Education Lab asked Smith about what he’s learned so far about nutrition in Seattle schools and how that will fit into a plan he’s drafting to revitalize his department.
His responses have been edited for clarity and length.
Q: Tell us a little about your past experience and how you landed at Seattle Public Schools.
A: After I did a year of service with AmeriCorps, I went back to school, to Le Cordon Bleu, and got my culinary certification and became a chef. Since then, I’ve been working in restaurants for 10 years, and a friend of mine asked if I wouldn’t mind going up to the Rockford school district [in northern Illinois] to help with school lunch. To be honest, my initial thought was, ‘Really? You want me to go cook chicken nuggets?’ I didn’t know anything about school meals.
But I decided to do it and it was far and away one of the best decisions I ever made. In that area, I could relate to a lot of students. When I grew up, school lunch a lot of times was my only meal of the day. Those memories really created a passion for helping out the students. I thought we could do a lot more than the traditional school lunch. We pushed for fresh fruit and vegetables, for breakfast and lunch all day. We kind of eliminated canned products.
After Rockford, I went to Chattanooga, Tennessee, and was the assistant director [of nutrition services] there for a few years. But then I wanted to figure out where I should put down my roots and start a new family. Luckily Seattle opened up, I got the job here and now my wife and I are expecting our first child.
Q: Since December, you’ve met with principals, student groups, parent-teacher associations and community organization. What did you learn?
A: This is the most diverse city I’ve ever worked in. Some schools, like Seattle World School, have so many cultures. I wanted to gather all this information so I could find a way to reach all these students kind of regionally, and then we can start customizing menus per area and find out what’s missing. Then we can expose students there to new food versus having one menu for that city.
What students asked for ranged from better quality food, things they could relate to from home and more locally grown items. I’ve taken all that information and will come up with a plan on how to transform nutrition services and how to implement it.
Q: How do you build culturally relevant menus in a school district trying to feed thousands of students every day?
A: It’s something that will constantly evolve over time. So in the Chinatown International District, next year I’m looking at adding pot stickers and fried rice. I have a second meeting with the Somali community, because finding halal items is very difficult when you have bids and contracts. So we need to find a way to incorporate some of their vegetarian dishes on the menu. As I collect data, as we improve our technology to get information on what students like and dislike, we can have a main entree that a majority of students like and then add a second entree that exposes them to a different culture. Ideally — in the future — we can start putting out educational information so they have background on these cultures. It’s important that we engage with the community, address those needs as parts of the educational system and not just providing breakfast and lunch.
Q: What’s the biggest challenge facing your department now?
A: Aside from gathering information and creating a long-term plan, it’s staffing. We just need to make sure that we retain employees. We need to figure out how to attract more employees. The image of nutrition services in general — the lunch lady image — it’s outdated. We need to evolve to make it a more attractive position for families to work. That’s something I really need to focus on and find a way to improve and increase the hiring process.
Q: What impact, if any, has Seattle’s growing inequality and housing affordability crisis had on the number of low-income students qualifying for subsidized meals at school?
A: From what I notice, it’s been on the decline, at least with the applications we receive. I don’t know enough about the city of Seattle to know exactly why the numbers are going down. But my job is to make sure we provide something for everybody, not just students on free- and reduced-price lunch. There might be a full-pay student, but their family might not want to fill out that application. Within my department, we have to reach all those students.
Q: What’s your timeline for finishing your long-term plan?
A: Hopefully soon, at least for the first phase. We actually have a pilot at Seattle World School with a fully customizable soup bar. We offer a variety of different soups: pho, coconut curry, tortilla. Students can go down the line and build their own soup. That’s one thing we’re trying to implement at more schools next year, and there’s other programs similar to that in that customization theme.
What I already have planned is definitely to increase the variety of fresh fruits and vegetables that we offer students. We’re going to transition away from processed items and going to more unprocessed foods. We’re also working with a local seafood company, maybe bringing in some fresh ingredients — salmon, cod. It wouldn’t be a daily option of course but something we could run every other month. It’s just about the quality of items. The more feedback I get, then I can figure out a way to plan it out and phase it in. I need to stay within my budget, but also meet the needs of the community. The end goal is to get back to some type of scratch cooking. We had that once before. It would take time, at least five years to get there, but that’s the end goal right now.