The nutrition team worked with students to create murals in the cafeteria that reflect the diverse student body.

By Kristi Mollner, MS, RD

Sodexo is committed to supporting diversity, equity and inclusion at every school we serve. The nutrition team at Balsz Elementary School District in Phoenix, AZ exemplifies this core company value, celebrating diversity by creating nutritious meals that reflect a wide range of cultures. Each year, the nutrition team engages students and staff through 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 Showcase Student Diversity

The menu for Indigenous Peoples’ Day featured Three Sisters Soup, House-made Blue Corn Tortillas and Melon Salad.

The district is culturally rich, with more than 93% of students belonging to ethnic and racial minority groups. Students come from all over the world, including Latin American countries, several African nations and multiple Native American tribes. Meals are a universal experience, and they offer a chance for students to connect with one another and learn more about both their own heritage and the cultures of their classmates. In a highly diverse student population, food brings everyone together.

Each week, we celebrate diversity with Traditional Thursdays, featuring authentic ethnic dishes at lunch that reflect students’ diverse heritages. Examples include Somali Cambuulo iyo Maraq, Navajo beef stew and Mexican pinto bean street tacos. The district also follows a strict pork-free rule to honor some students’ religious practices.

We also spotlight special heritage days and months throughout the school year. Our team creates culturally driven lunch menus to celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Mexican Independence Day, Hispanic Heritage Month and Black History Month. For Black History Month one year, the nutrition team collected recipes from community members and made them a regular part of the school lunch menu in subsequent years.


Celebrating Traditional Foods

Balsz Superintendent Dr. Arleen Kennedy demonstrates how to cook traditional African American recipes.

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.


Promoting Local Foods

The Balsz Elementary School District nutrition team regularly connects children to foods traditionally grown in their home state of Arizona. Agricultural literacy, gardening and the procurement of local foods comprise our comprehensive farm-to-school program. We teach students about local foods by bringing in farmers to educate them about life on a farm. Students also learn from local chefs how food grown in Arizona 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 sample 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.

Students learn about Arizona-grown grains from a local chef.

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.


Celebrating Culture at School

Students taste fresh-picked Arizona apples.

Nutrition education and celebrating diversity are important parts of any food service program. Food service teams should start by reaching out to their district’s administrative staff to learn the demographic makeup of the student body and then focus on creating a program that highlights food diversity.

Here are a few other ways to bring diversity into a school’s nutrition program:

  • Encourage 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 a 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.
Garden kits for students to take home.

Whatever special initiative you choose, make personalizing student nutrition a priority and watch your students reap the rewards.




March 12, 2021