A few years ago, my wife and I sent our oldest abroad to high school. We were all equally nervous. This was a boy for whom we had cared, worried over and fed for 18 years. Yet, suddenly, he was supposed to do it all himself?
In his first few months, we helped his transition – and our own worries – by feeding him. We sent cakes and all his favorite, filling treats. We knew that good, familiar food would calm and nourish him at a time when there were so many other challenges for him to tackle.
Food can be a panacea.
Many of us in the school community know this and it’s why cafeterias and dining halls are stocked with comfort food. Yet, it is increasingly important to expand our idea of what sort of food we consider a comfort. One person’s macaroni & cheese might be another’s French pastry and another’s shawarma and another’s quinoa.
Food is such a good opportunity for us to help each student feel embraced and included.
Student bodies across the globe are diversifying at a record pace, each student bringing their own culture, background, perspective and taste buds. Food is such a good opportunity for us to help each student feel embraced and included.
That means moving beyond, far beyond, traditional fare.
Broader menus have been a trend in student dining for a while. With tastes becoming more sophisticated, more options get rave reviews and Instagram likes. But an inclusive menu is about something larger than popularity.
Imagine arriving at a university in Beijing as an 18-year-old American and confronting that first meal in the dining hall and, among a buffet of unfamiliar dishes, stands a tray of pizza.
Imagine beginning your first year as a Nigerian student in an English school and the welcoming celebration includes a dish of Jollof rice.
Or, imagine as a vegetarian from Colorado you find out your East Coast dining hall has a tofu bar.
Without a word, the menu has told you that you are not alone, you are appreciated and you are welcome.
That’s a powerful meal.
An inclusive menu is about something larger than popularity.
There are several paths to building inclusive menus.
Some have created new cuisine stations; others are creating customizable options that nod to personal preference. Still, others are working with students and local suppliers to co-create menus. Binghamton University in New York, for instance, has partnered with a local Indian restaurateur to craft authentic dishes and Coventry University in the UK is partnering with a vegan street food outlet.
Every campus has the opportunity. The key is to the approach the menu thoughtfully so that it can translate, comfortably, to each and every student. I know from experience that there is only so long parents can send cakes.