Chartwells employee Amber Vesely holds up a plate of fish tacos

Union Ridge Elementary is one of only nine schools nationwide selected for an innovative program that invites students on a journey to explore the unique ingredients and authentic flavors from cuisines around the world. The “Global Eats” initiative is being spearheaded by Ridgefield School District’s Nutrition Services provider, Chartwells School Dining Services. During the opening four-week tour, students tried foods from Mexico, Italy, India, and China as part of the school lunch pilot program. With recipes created by celebrity chefs, like Food Network’s Jet Tila and Aarti Sequeira, students had a first-class ticket to travel the culinary world.

Director of Dining Services Mike Lee shared how Global Eats got started. “The school cafeteria is often one of the first places a child gets to taste and learn about foods from outside their family’s recipes or traditional cultural dishes.” He hopes to turn food into a global adventure by encouraging students to eat together and taste new foods and flavors while learning about different cultures.

Each week, students are offered three days of global menus. The first week, food from Mexico was featured, with recipes from Chicago-based chef Jonathan Zaragoza of Birrieria Zaragoza. The menu included favorites like horchata parfait (based on the sweet, cinnamony horchata drink), albóndigas con arroz (Mexican-spiced meatballs with rice), and elotes (grilled Mexican street corn). 

The second week offered food from Italy, with recipes from chef Michael Toscano of Charleston’s La Farfalle and New York City’s Da Toscano. The menu included rotini pasta with chicken and broccoli Alfredo, meatballs pizzaioli (pizza-style meatballs with marinara sauce), and Caprese sandwich (with tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil).

Last week’s menu highlighted recipes from India, created by Food Network chef Aarti Sequeira. Dishes included tandoori chicken (grilled chicken marinated in Indian spices), beef kofta curry (meatballs in a curry sauce), and sweet potato and spinach vindaloo (an Indian-spiced vegetable stew). 

The final week featured the cuisine of China. Recipes developed by Food Network chef Jet Tila included Sichuan-style mapo tofu (cubed tofu in a spicy red sauce), dan dan noodles (flavorful Chinese street food noodles), and char siu pork (Chinese style barbecued pork). 

The Global Eats program does more than just introduce new dishes to the school menu; it also includes an educational program to engage students in learning about each country. There are themed posters and table toppers at each meal to teach and spark conversation among students. They also launched a website, www.k12globaleats.com that features chef and recipe videos, as well as fun activities for students, families, and educators. 

According to Chartwells’ Amber Veseley, the response from students has been enthusiastic. “A lot of the kids are super excited about wanting to try new things,” she said. “They can’t wait to get to the cafeteria to see what they’re trying that day. It has really started them talking about the foods they recognize and the foods they enjoy.”

And Veseley said students are already making suggestions for what foods they want to see next year. “One student said she wanted to have Filipino food because that’s what her grandmother makes. They all want to share something they love with the other kids at school, and that’s amazing.”