VA schools consider making meals, calendars more culturally inclusive

Governor Ralph Northam has appointed a taskforce to study ways to make school meals and calendars more diverse.

The taskforce, split up into two subcommittees, began meeting in June.

Adam Russo is the Director of School Food and Nutrition Services for Prince William County Schools. He is serving on the meal sub-committee.

He says the goal is to be more inclusive and create culturally diverse meals that align with all kinds of cultures and religions.

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"We want the food to look like the meals that are being served at home," Russo said.

Russo says the taskforce is testing recipes and products such as soy free chicken. He says a big focus is also on vegetarian meals because many of those dishes align with Jewish and Halal restrictions but at the end of the day, Russo says they want students to have options.

"We want our food to be helpful but it’s not helpful if they’re not eating it. We need them to be prepared to learn so we’re going to nourish their bodies so that the teachers can then nourish their minds," he said.

Tomorrow the subcommittee will meet with parents and students to receive input and test out recipes.

"We have to also understand that while being inclusive we don’t want to exclude families. I don’t see a world where inclusivity creates this exclusivity where we are then pushing our families out of our programs. That’s not the goal. The goal is to make food so yummy that everyone from everywhere is going to want to eat it because it’s accessible to them," he said.

Russo also emphasized that the subcommittee’s recommendations will vary by geographical location and that all of this will be a work in progress.

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"I don’t think that any of us are too proud to say that we’re going to get this 100% correct. I think that it’s going to have to be applied practically and we’re going to have to see what works and what doesn’t and then apply that across the board. Because what happens in Prince William may be successful and then we can apply that in Richmond, perhaps. And maybe it doesn’t work in Bristol, so we adjust that one and so on," Russo said.

Rabbi Abbi Sharofsky of the Jewish Community Relation Council of Greater Washington is serving on the calendar subcommittee.

The calendar subcommittee is doing similar research on geographical demographics regarding cultural and religious holidays.

Sharofsky says many school calendars are outdated and centered mainly around Christian religious practices.

"When we look at a calendar it’s not enough to say well these are the days we’ve always had off from school because that might not currently meet the needs of all of our students," she said.

Sharofsky said the subcommittee won’t suggest every holiday be given off but it will encourage districts to add certain days and at the very least ask them to take a look at curriculum planning around holidays.

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"Right now many school districts look at absences as a way to decide which holidays should be given off but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Absences don’t show the students who showed up to school missing holidays with their families in fear of being penalized or missing a big exam."

Sharofsky said the calendar subcommittee’s recommendations will also vary by location.

"It’s where we get to this issue of faith equity. We talk a lot about what does it mean to have an equitable education and experience for all students and in recognizing that there are so many other faiths that make up our schools districts. How are we looking at meeting those needs in an equitable way," she said.

Both subcommittees will present their recommendations in August to Governor Northam and the Secretary of Education who will then recommend them to local school boards.

The state has not yet given a clear answer on a budget or cost when it comes to implementing the new strategies.