Selecting Foods for Culturally Diverse Children for School Menus

Diversity is one of the biggest questions facing contemporary society in the United States and the rest of the world. In schools, authorities grapple each day to integrate cultural diversity into their operations, including the school menu. Immigration has changed the demographic landscape in public and private schools in the US, forcing reevaluations of the mainstream culture (Lash, 2018). Food is a useful lens for assessing cultural trends and how societies adapt to accommodate others’ needs. While it is an essential component of the national identity, increased diversity calls for evaluating such identities.

Rapidly changing ethnic and racial composition in the US has profoundly affected nutrition management and food service in schools. Multicultural awareness among school administrations and educators enhances respect, appreciation for diverse food cultures among learners and their families. Consequently, this appreciation results in expanding nutrition services and learning experiences for children (Gaddis & Coplen, 2018). Professional organizations and the government recommend the inclusion of culturally appropriate food programs in all grade levels, including preschool. Therefore, schools must find practical ways to select and incorporate foods that reflect children’s different cultural backgrounds. This demanding process requires a careful balance between meeting the cultural needs and taming costs.

Case Selection

American school lunches provide useful information when examining the relationship between mainstream culture and cultural diversity. Mealtimes teach children how to fit into their culture, for example, how to be American. Improving lunches in schools has always been a primarily social and political issue. The past debate focused on making school food more nutritious by reducing its fat and cholesterol levels (Mozaffarian et al., 2018). However, the recent discussion now focuses on ensuring that food served in the school cafeteria and childcare centers reflects learners’ cultures or children in the respective centers. The case study analyzes an experimental approach at the Southern Illinois University, which aims to provide school meals responsive to preschool children’s cultural identities.

This article was appropriate for this assignment because it highlights the importance of the subject matter in question, i.e., enhancing the cultural diversity of food menus and employing a scientific approach to determine the methodology’s effectiveness. The study also uses a significant proportion of immigrants among the participants. Most importantly, the experiment recognizes the importance of a democratic approach by involving parents in deciding the menu’s composition. The study also takes place in a university setting, therefore enhancing the possibility of breakthrough findings. The above reasons make the article a perfect fit.

The authors investigate Southern Illinois University’s Child Development Laboratories (CDL) at Carbondale. The CDL serves an anti-biased and developmentally appropriate curriculum, which advances experiential learning opportunities. The center administers children from six weeks to six years, providing an educational environment and philosophy that encourages families from diverse backgrounds to attend. Approximately 33% of the children in the center during the study came from international immigrant families (Smith, 2004).

The school composed a food committee, which incorporated staff members and parents. The committee oversaw the project and allowed children to design the menus, and parents submitted eighteen recipes to the committee and went through prescreening for suitability. To improve the food’s nutritional value, the committee modified several recipes to reduce cholesterol, sodium, and fat content.  The screening process selected nine recipes: three main dishes, four desserts, and two side dishes. The menu represented seven different cultural backgrounds.

The project introduced to staff and children to numerous unfamiliar ethnic recipes, leading to the expansion of available food options. The project provided children and staff an opportunity to learn and appreciate cultural diversity, resulting in a positive school environment, especially for children from immigrant backgrounds. The committee identified operational challenges, for example, inadequate skill levels in adopting the menu items. The kitchen staff underwent training to allow the implementation of the menu.

The project reveals the importance of diverse food habits and cultures in establishing enjoyable and exciting learning experiences for children. Frequent and early exposure to various menus is likely to encourage children to accommodate diversity and develop healthy eating habits from a young age. Additionally, children’s exposure to food strongly correlates with future taste preferences. In the past, parents significantly influenced their children’s tastes and preferences. However, contemporary society has seen parents become less reliable food providers.

Preschool programs and childcare centers have increased the role of providing food for children. In this regard, parents and caregivers share the responsibility of creating positive affections about food and enhancing healthy eating habits among children. The provision of diverse, multicultural menus is critical in ensuring that children adopt healthy eating habits early in life. Institutions such as the National Association for the Education of Your Children (NAEYC) encourage childcare centers to provide foods related to the admitted children’s backgrounds (Smith, 2004). Therefore, apart from meeting the students’ needs, the CDL program adheres to recommended standards, allowing other institutions to learn from their successes and failures to accommodate diversity.

The case study also reveals that children are likely to select and eat meals in school if the menus satisfy their cultural inclinations. The food should also be served in comfortable, supportive, and attractive social environments (Akyildiz & Polat, 2018). For example, educators can market meals in the classroom and integrated them into the curriculum. The school cafeteria can also mark foods from diverse cultures and provide samples. The school administration should also involve parents by providing newsletters, inviting them during meal times, and presenting proposed menus during parent meetings.

Finding a Solution to Food Diversity in Schools

Different cultures have different views about feeding practices. Some feeding practices may have deep roots in cultural beliefs, personal experiences, and parenting considerations around child expectations and socialization. Therefore, while promoting culturally relevant foods in schools, educators must consider these factors’ role in influencing parents’ choices regarding their children’s eating habits. For example, forcing children to eat culturally diverse food to promote healthy eating may not be the most appropriate method of encouraging children and parents to accommodate new recommendations. The process must be consultative and accommodate both children’s and parents’ views on the menu.

The process of accommodating children from diverse cultures also involves careful incorporation of new menu items while recognizing the relevance and pride attached to the mainstream culture. Food is an essential component of the cultural identities of individuals. Therefore, the process must not be invasive and ensure that parents and students understand the activity’s purpose. As immigrant communities continue to form significant urban communities, societies might fear outside cultures’ domination. Such opinions might result in resentments, which may not help accommodate diversity.

Another argument for including a wider variety of menu items in school cafeterias is that there are no longer mainstream national cultures. This sentiment comes from the notion that contemporary cultural diversity has advanced to the extent that individuals may adhere to cultural practices and norms, thus eroding national unity. According to Bean et al. (2019), heterogeneity has always stood as modern societies’ future. This is evident by the cosmopolitan nature of large cities in the United States, where highly educated immigrants integrate freely. These urban areas consist of highly educated individuals who are more tolerant of the idea of multiculturalism. Lash (2018) asserts that education encourages individuals to be open-minded. For this reason, introducing culturally diverse menus in school cafeterias introduces children to the concept of diversity at an early age.

Application to Organizational Leadership (Spearheading Inclusivity in Schools)

Food is a universal language, illustrating the culture and history of the place it represents. Food opens individuals’ minds by raising awareness about different identities. Therefore, children should feel free to express themselves according to their dietary preferences. Thus, the atmosphere should encourage respect around meals and food. According to Akyildiz & Polat (2019), the cafeteria atmosphere can affect how children behave and eat. Schools can ensure improved cafeteria environments by training staff on handling multicultural learners, positive wall art, having parents as monitors, and keeping children entertained during lunch hours. Such an environment sets the stage for positive interactions between learners.

It is vital to address the structural and operational elements that might inhibit culturally diverse meals in schools. Many public institutions might not have the capacity to diversify their menu items without compromising the quality of food served in school cafeterias. In this regard, the first step should be to enhance schools’ capacities to provide nutritious and diverse meals to school-going children. This goal can be achieved through improved training for school workers and educators, boosting schools’ power in sourcing and storing food, and ensuring that they receive local support for initiatives meant to improve inclusivity.

The purpose of providing culturally diverse food goes beyond merely satisfying the need for inclusivity. According to Antonini & O’Neal (2017), nourishing school through the National Lunch Program has improved test scores. Students can enhance their scores further when provided with meals that they prefer. Other benefits include a reduction in the number of overweight children in schools. Therefore, presenting the case for diverse lunches by having the educational and health benefits can positively affect encouraging parents and students to embrace such initiatives. Discussions must be free from political inclinations and focus on learners’ benefits through diverse school environments.

Schools can also rely on the pedagogical purpose of providing school meals as the primary component of policymaking and administrative regulation in this area. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is charged with overseeing the school meal program and issuing diet guidelines. The USDA acknowledges that the primary goal of offering school meals is to provide access to nutrition education to enhance American agriculture and inspire public confidence. Students going through the lunch line must select regulated menu components to qualify for reimbursements. The various components enhance meals’ nutritional value and teach students about a balanced diet. The USDA can also include cultural awareness and inclusion as one reason to mandate students to select diverse dietary components while serving lunch.

From a policy perspective, the USDA can help ensure that parents, learners, and educators embrace diverse menus in school. For example, it can include various components in a student’s lunch as one qualification for reimbursement. Such a move would also ensure that parents and learners have confidence with adjusted menus and the ingredients used to prepare them.

Another method that schools can use to take care of diversity concerns is to completely shift to the Food-Based Menu Planning (FBMP) approach. The approach requires meal panning in school to include different food types instead of targeting specific nutritional elements in food. Additionally, the FBMP requires clear labeling of food to enhance nutritional education. In the same spirit, while introducing children to new menu items from different cultures, clear labeling of their dietary values could improve the acceptance levels among parents and students who are likely to be resistant to change.

The Elephant at the Table

In 2013 alone, the US spent about one billion dollars on school meal programs. Most of the money was paid on entitlements and commodity bonuses. Essentially, the statistics highlight the agricultural sector’s significance in influencing debates over school meal composition. This fact echoes the importance of balancing cultural, political, and social implications for food against their nutritional value. Nutrition is neither the sole nor primary focal point in determining school meals’ composition. Three interests compete in deciding what schools serve in their programs. These factors include the food’s market value, the food’s political value, and nutritional value.

Traditionally, the balancing act between the market, political and nutritional value has a long history that serves two primary purposes. One is to feed children, and the other is to support the US agricultural sector. These two purposes align with the school meal program because the primary concern was to address the caloric deficiencies in school-going children. This relationship has always created complex tensions between the agricultural sector’s obligations and the school children’s well-being. For this reason, the sourcing methods employed in schools must ensure the protection of the local market. For example, suppose politicians and locals perceive that changing the menu might close the lucrative school market. In that case, they are likely to oppose the move because of the effect on the agricultural sector.  When diversifying the menu, schools should tailor the recipes to reflect locally available products, which will preserve the traditional market for farmers.

In the United States, food cost significantly impacts dietary decisions and other associated behaviors. Healthier diets are likely to be more expensive, implying that schools will require more financial allocations (Freedman et al., 2019). This angle invites the political side of the menu selection. Politicians opposed to the diversity question might question the economic cost of integrating immigrant populations into the society by incurring extra costs. However, policymakers and stakeholders must note that increasing the variety of available resources does not have to be a costly affair. For example, schools can find ingredients within the locality with proper sourcing and reduce other costs associated with sourcing supplies like transportation and storage. While focusing on the nutritional elements, schools can still find inexpensive ways of delivering the same quantity of food and get students excited about their mealtime experiences. However, pulling through such bottlenecks will require collaboration and cooperation from the political class to allow flexibility in experimentation and revenue allocation.

Procurement is at the center of ensuring healthy eating in school and culturally inclusive meals. Antonini & O’Neal (2017) assert that farm to school programs can play an instrumental role in encouraging community involvement and healthy eating among students. The program’s three primary elements include education, procurement, and school gardens. The primary goal of procurement is to focus on where the food is coming from and incorporate fresh farm food into the school cafeterias. Additionally, Antonini & O’Neal (2017) stress the importance of encouraging students to participate in food production through school gardens. Such programs support local farmers and improve the livelihoods of the local communities. Nonetheless, the primary focus should be on the benefits that trickle down to the learners, which include healthy living, awareness creation and improved academic scores because of the advantages of healthy eating.

In conclusion, diversity is one of the biggest questions facing contemporary society in the United States and the world. In both public and primary, educators grapple each day to integrate cultural diversity into their operations, including the school menu. Immigration has changed the demographic landscape in public and private schools in the US, forcing reevaluations of the mainstream culture. Therefore, school lunch concerns have shifted from the dietary elements to cultural inclusivity. Schools have to balance the school lunch menus’ nutritional, political, and market value while increasing the lunch menu options. Despite the significant political and cultural sensitivity surrounding food, schools must find ways of ensuring the integration of diverse students by making food an essential element in cultural awareness. This goal is demanding and will take years of political and societal goodwill from communities.

References

Akyildiz, N. A., & Polat, H. (2018). Social interaction organizations of consumption habits: Cafeterias. Retrieved January 27, 2020, from https://bit.ly/3abgrDS

Antonini, A., & O’Neal, C. (2017). Farm to school: Closing the food literacy gap to address healthy eating habits. KAHPERD Journal54(2).

Bean, M. K., Theriault, E., Grigsby, T., Stewart, M. D., & LaRose, J. G. (2019). A cafeteria personnel intervention to improve the school food environment. American Journal of Health Behavior43(1), 158-167.

Freedman, D. A., Ngendahimana, D., Shon, E. J., Merritt, K., & Pon, J. (2019). Predictors of supplemental nutrition assistance program use at farmers’ markets with monetary incentive programming. American Journal of Health Promotion33(7), 1039-1048.

Gaddis, J., & Coplen, A. K. (2018). Reorganizing school lunch for a more just and sustainable food system in the US. Feminist Economics24(3), 89-112.

Lash, C. L. (2018). Making Americans: Schooling, diversity, and assimilation in the twenty-first century. RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences4(5), 99-117.

Mozaffarian, D., Angell, S. Y., Lang, T., & Rivera, J. A. (2018). Role of government policy in nutrition—barriers to and opportunities for healthier eating. Bmj361.

Smith, M., Nelson, A., Starbuck, S., & Ashraf, L. A. (2004). Selecting foods of children’s cultural backgrounds for a preschool menu: a practical solution. The Journal of Child Nutrition and Management.  28(1)

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