A small group of students at Propel Montour are eating their way around the world this year. It’s not a new cafeteria option, it’s a lesson in inclusion.
The idea for the Taste the World program, run by school integration specialist Robyn Doyle, started simply enough.
“It stemmed from students just sharing interests in what I was bringing for lunch,” Doyle said.
The group meets once a week during lunch hour. Each student had to submit a short essay as to why he or she should be chosen to be part of the group.
Ten seventh and eighth graders were selected for the program and signed what they call “the waiver" -- an agreement they're willing to leave their comfort zones.
“To be open minded and try anything new that comes our way,” eighth grader Maddie Chlystek said.
Chlystek said she can be a picky eater at times, but she’s ready for an adventure.
This week, Taste the World featured food from Cambodia.
The lesson started with a brief conversation about the 20-hour flight needed to travel from the U.S. to Cambodia. Then, even before the food was served, Doyle leaned on “the waiver.”
“In Cambodia, they often use chopsticks,” she said. “And you guys all signed a waiver to step outside of your comfort zone and try something new so you at least give it shot today. Deal?”
And then came the food. There were fish cakes, banh chhev (a type of thin, crepe-like pancake), beef and lemon grass skewers, as well as a few other dishes.
“As you’re tasting the food, keep in mind you are going to have the share this experience with others,” Doyle said as the students sampled. “I want you to be thinking about what you like, what you don’t like, why you don’t like it. And then we’ll be doing some research on it next time.”
None of the seventh and eighth grade students could remember having eaten Cambodia food. They took turns trying to describe the flavors and textures, with the most common word being “hot.”
Extra cartons of milk were brought in from the cafeteria to cool the young palates.
For Propel Montour Principal Matthew Strine, the chance to expose the students to new things was a big part of why he encouraged Doyle to go forward with the program.
“One of the things we talk about a lot at Propel is an ‘opportunity gap,’” Strine said. “So, not only are we trying to close and achievement gap with academics, (we’re) exposing students to opportunities that they might not otherwise have. You know, it might not be the norm for some of the families to go out and try something new.”
The 400 students that attend the K-8 school come from seven regional school districts. Most of them are from Pittsburgh Public Schools or the Sto-Rox School District.
After trying the food and exploring different cultures, the students will share presentations with the rest of the school.
“Sometimes, we as the adults in the building can share things with students and it might go in one ear and out the other,” Strine said. “But when they hear it from their peers, it’s a lot more meaningful.”
Doyle said she isn’t sure where the Taste the World program will take them, but the group has already immersed itself in new foods and cultures. Among the first cultures explored was the Iroquois’ many uses of corn, which is also being featured at CMU’s Conflict Kitchen.
Reporting for the Remake Learning Initiative is made possible by a grant from the Grable Foundation.