Nov 7, 2023 - News

Austin ISD serves globally inspired school lunches

Papusa day has become a favorite for AISD students this year. Photo: Courtesy of Austin Independent School District

Austin ISD students wandering through their school lunch lines aren't scooping up that unidentifiable slop from your high school days.

  • They're often choosing from a wide variety of food — pupusas, lo mein, empanadas, chana masala and everything in between.

The big picture: The flavorful menu is planned roughly a year in advance by the district's executive chef Diane Grodek and dietician Rachel Dunn, whose team serves over 65,000 meals a day across AISD's 116 campuses.

Why it matters: Research shows that students who participate in school meal programs consume more whole grains, milk, fruits and vegetables than those who bring their lunch from home, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What's happening: Grodek's top priority is to feed kids a nutritious meal, and she aims to strike a balance between introducing them to new flavors while still making the meals feel safe and accessible.

  • "We offer these global options, but we also offer something that they can feel really comfortable with," Grodek tells Axios. "If we have a day with Moroccan drumsticks and quinoa, we'll also have a SunButter and jelly sandwich. We never want a kid to be intimidated coming through our line."
A Moroccan drumstick with quinoa. Photo: Courtesy of Austin Independent School District

Between the lines: The more interesting flavor profiles end up on middle school and high school menus, and "we try to trickle down some of the trends to elementary schools," according to Grodek.

How it works: Grodek and her team head to food shows, analyze trends and try to understand who is coming into Austin schools.

  • "We have a lot of people coming from the Middle East right now. We have a lot of people coming from Central America, so we're trying to tweak things so that those kids get a little something that's familiar to them," Grodek says.
  • And Grodek surveys the frozen food aisles of grocery stores to understand what global flavors are likely to be recognizable to students, such as Asian and Indian food.

Of note: This year's star dish? Pupusas.

  • Grodek had to restock the district warehouses because the demand was so unexpected.
  • "We didn't realize kids even knew what a pupusa was," Grodek says. "Sometimes one dish just strikes in a way that you couldn't imagine."

Get more local stories in your inbox with Axios Austin.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more

More Austin stories

No stories could be found


Get a free daily digest of the most important news in your backyard with Axios Austin.


Support local journalism by becoming a member.

Learn more