Kristi Mollner, MS, RD

The theme of this year’s National Nutrition Month is “Personalize Your Plate” and nothing could be more personal for the nutrition team at Balsz Elementary School District in Phoenix, Arizona. That’s because today, and every day, our Sodexo food service team emphasizes the need to celebrate student diversity by creating nutritious meals that reflect individual cultural and personal food preferences. Each year, our food service department engages children and staff through a variety of culinary projects and educational opportunities that emphasize culture. These initiatives include themed lunches, education on traditional cultural foods, and an award-winning farm-to-school program.


Menus that revolve around student diversity

A Balsz school cafeteria created by the food service department and students, reflecting the diverse student body.Our district is culturally rich, with more than 93 percent of our students coming from ethnic and racial minority groups. Our students come from all over the world, including Latin American countries, several African nations, and multiple Native American tribes. Amid this enriching diversity, food brings us all together.

Each week, our lunch menu includes “Traditional Thursdays” entrées made from traditional foods and dishes reflecting the students’ diverse heritages. They enjoy dishes such as Somali Cambuulo iyo Maraq, Navajo Beef Stew, Mexican Pinto Bean Street Tacos, and African American BBQ Chicken with Sweet Potatoes. The district also follows a strict pork-free rule to honor some of its students’ religious practices.

Graphic: A Balsz school cafeteria created by the food service department and students, reflecting the diverse student body.


We also spotlight special heritage days and months throughout the school year. Our team creates special lunch menus to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Mexican Independence Day, Hispanic Heritage Month, and Black History Month. For Black History Month this year, our food service staff decided to take the program to another level by collecting recipes from community members to make them a more permanent part of next year’s school lunch menu.

Graphic: Indigenous Peoples’ Day menu, featuring a Three Sisters Soup, Homemade Blue Corn Tortillas, and Melon Salad


Celebrating traditional foods beyond the lunch hour

Last year, Balsz partnered with Arizona Health Zone (the state’s SNAP-Ed program) and Native Health to create cooking demonstration videos. These videos demonstrated traditional Native American (focusing on Navajo), Latin American (specifically Mexico), and African American dishes. Each video included a discussion about foods and their significance to their respective cultures. Each recipe also incorporated a nutritious twist. And, boy, were these videos popular! Students and community members across Arizona continue to share the videos to bring awareness to traditional cultural foods.

Graphic: Balsz superintendent Dr. Arleen Kennedy demonstrating how to cook traditional African American recipes.


Celebrating foods from students’ home state

Our Balsz food service department regularly connects children to foods traditionally grown in our home state of Arizona. Agricultural literacy, gardening, and the procurement of local foods make up our comprehensive farm-to-school program. We teach our students about Arizona foods by bringing in farmers to educate them about life on a farm. Students also learn from local chefs how native Arizona foods can be integrated into their favorite recipes. The children learn how to grow their own vegetables by planting seeds in garden beds and recycled milk containers. Students also eat a variety of freshly harvested foods grown throughout the state through taste-test events and special farm-to-school lunch menus. For the past three years, the district has received top honors from the Arizona Department of Education for its farm-to-school initiatives.

Graphic: Students learning about native Arizona grains from a local chef

Graphic: Students tasting freshly picked Arizona apples.

Graphic: Student planting radish seeds in a recycled milk carton.


This agriculture program continued even when students were forced to learn from home this year because of COVID-19. Balsz received a No Kid Hungry grant to purchase items to create 1,000 take-home garden kits. These kits contained soil, a planting pot, basil seeds, and planting instructions. The kits also included educational materials, such as basil recipes and an activity book. As part of these kits, students were invited to participate in a garden-themed art contest, which will be showcased in our district wellness calendar.

Garden kits sent home with the students.


Celebratingculture in your school

Nutrition education is not just limited to National Nutrition Month. You can celebrate culturally diverse foods in your school anytime throughout the year. Start by reaching out to your district’s administrative staff to learn the demographic makeup of the student body. Then, focus on creating a program that highlights food diversity. Here are a few other ways to bring diversity into your school’s nutrition program:

  • Engage with students and their families to collect traditional recipes to feature on your menu or as part of special theme days.
  • Celebrate heritage months and days with special menu items, student taste tests, and educational opportunities.
  • Create a nutrition calendar featuring recipes and heritage days or months.
  • Form your own farm-to-school program by partnering with local farmers and chefs, procuring local foods, and enriching students' learning with agriculture literacy and gardening.
  • Share all your great work on the school’s social media pages.

Whatever special initiative you choose, make personalizing student nutrition a priority of your school's food service and watch your students reap the rewards.





March 12, 2021

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