Members from the City of Seattle, SPS Culinary Services Team, and the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe celebrate their collaboration at the Seattle World School on May 25. From left to right: Gurdeep Gill, Lan Huynh, Louie Ungaro, Elizebeth Winston, Aaron Smith, Chris Iberle • Photo by Carmen Hom

It’s full circle for lifelong fisherman and Muckleshoot Tribal Councilmember Louie Ungaro.

On May 25, the Seattle World School cafeteria served salmon alfredo. The day’s meal featured a special local ingredient: 3000 pounds of wild-caught coho salmon, caught by members of the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe and distributed by Muckleshoot Seafood Products. The dish was baked with a marinade of lemon juice, salt, pepper, and mixed into a pasta alfredo, served to students across Seattle Public Schools (SPS).

For Ungaro, this meal hit home for him. He was born and raised on a fishing boat in the southern Puget Sound, and grew up commercial fishing across the waters from Washington to Alaska.

“What happens in this kitchen affects what happens to my tribal fishers,” Ungaro said. “This is more than feeding a good healthy meal to Seattle students. You’re also giving a boost to our tribal fishermen and women. As well as it’s local, and that its carbon footprint is here from the Northwest.”

Although this wasn’t the first time SPS has served Muckleshoot salmon, it was the first time Ungaro met the team that helped make this collaboration happen. He convened with Aaron Smith of SPS’ Culinary Service Team, and Gurdeep Gill and Chris Iberle of the City of Seattle’s Office of Sustainability and Environment (OSE), exchanging introductions, lessons learned, and future ambitions around a table amidst an energetic lunch period.

A student eats a bowl of Muckleshoot salmon alfredo during lunch • Photo by Carmen Hom
Frozen filets of Muckleshoot salmon await to undergo a laborious process of cleaning, marinating, baking, deboning, and portioning • Photo by Carmen Hom

Supporting schools with culturally sustaining meals and circular economies

Although the partnership came together organically, the ethos of the collaboration was intentional in every way.

Director of Nutrition Services Aaron Smith and Executive Chef Emme Collins are SPS’ culinary leaders, who have focused on sourcing as many ingredients as they can from Washington-based farms and businesses.

“One thing about Seattle culture is that it’s really big on small businesses, supporting communities, supporting tribes,” Smith said. “Helping the community grow means helping the schools grow. We’re supporting families. We’re supporting uncles, cousins, moms, dads, and grandkids going to Seattle Public Schools. It’s a full circle of support.”

In many ways, the cost breakdown of purchasing from local businesses and producers is comparable, if not more affordable, than purchasing from third party distributors. Buying locally means delivery is cheaper, and usually, in-state producers don’t include upcharges typical of third party service companies.

At the John Stanford Center for Educational Excellence (JSCEE) Central Kitchen, a staff member dips a salmon filet in a marinade of lemon juice, salt, and pepper. JSCEE in SODO is home base for SPS’ distribution network, and where the majority of every meal served is made • Photo by Carmen Hom

Collins and Smith are also committed to serving culturally representative and revitalizing foods to SPS students — a population who is majority BIPOC. They incorporate these ideals into the meal planning of daily breakfasts and lunches for approximately 27,000 students.

In contrast to the stereotypical American school lunch of highly-processed burgers, cheese pizza, and French fries, Smith and Collins’ efforts respin the narrative of what a school lunch can be.

SPS once rolled out duck spring rolls in celebration of Lunar New Year. They’ve also cooked misir wot and distributed injera purchased from local business Sebhat Bakery & Grocery. In 2022, SPS even served vegetarian lugaw (Filipino congee).

“Tell me about your life! Tell me where you’re from. Tell me something that you’d like to eat as a kid so I can put it on the menu,” Smith said to Wing Luke Elementary kitchen manager Mary Anne Encarnado when they met. “She was just telling me about congee and I was like, ‘OK, we’re gonna do this. I promise you we will put it on a menu, but you’ve got to agree to get on camera and do the recipe for everybody.’ She said, ‘Absolutely not!’”

Encarnado shared an idea to serve lugaw, a congee —or rice porridge — of her native Philippines. She spearheaded a few months of recipe development before the dish was eventually served in SPS cafeterias. It was topped with local eggs, adobo-flavored shiitakes from Cascadia Mushrooms, chives from Osprey Hill Farm, and green onions from Alvarez Organic Farms.

After baking in the oven, the salmon is portioned by Huong Nguyen • Photo by Carmen Hom

Chris Iberle, a Food Policy and Programs Strategic Advisor at OED, works in tandem with Smith to make these meals possible. He leads the Healthy Food in Schools Program, which he says supplies fresh and culturally relevant fruits and vegetables to 19 schools and pays for ingredients used in some of SPS’ scratch meals. The program is supported by revenue generated from the City of Seattle’s Sweetened Beverage Tax, a tax on the distribution of sweetened beverages in Seattle. Iberle states that other funding for SPS Culinary Services’ local food purchasing comes from a Farm to School Purchasing Grant awarded by the Washington State Department of Agriculture. 

“The impacts are so great,” Iberle said. “It’s better for the kids, it builds a more equitable local food economy, it’s better for the environment. It’s better for communities to reinvest school food purchases in more local ingredients, like Muckleshoot salmon.”

At the Seattle World School, kitchen staff Lan Huynh mixes a tray of Muckleshoot salmon alfredo with a final sprinkle of salt and pepper • Photo by Carmen Hom

“We’re here in perpetuity”

There is meaning and significance to how SPS sourced the salmon for this meal from the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe.

Salmon have, since time immemorial, been the heart and soul of Native American communities of the Pacific Northwest. As a central character in tribal legends, ceremonies, and celebrations and as the livelihood of many local indigenous groups, salmon are vital to regional Indigenous history, spiritual practices, ecology, economy, nutrition, and cultural identity.

‘’Seattle was known for its salmon; nowadays it’s Starbucks,” said Ungaro, “As Muckleshoot people, we understand that the Salmon people are our relatives. They’ve sustained our way of life for more than 10,000 years. And that’s pretty important.”

3000 lbs of Muckleshoot Seafood Products’ coho in the JSCEE freezer • Photo by Carmen Hom

Salmon are an indicator species, meaning that their health is directly affected by the health of their environment. Salmon rely on a delicate ecosystem whose livelihood, Ungaro said, is at the behest of water rights. It is Ungaro’s own livelihood as a fisherman that deeply influences his work as a policymaker.

“I really feel like it’s my responsibility as a leader, as an older fisherman, as being somebody who’s been on the water since the Boldt decision to be an advocate just as those who came before me, like my ancestors have,” Ungaro said. “It’s my time to open up the way to support a life for our younger people and future generations. That’s why I do what I do. I understand the value that my people carry and bring into this world.”

At the Seattle World School cafeteria, Ungaro paused for a moment. He was moved when reflecting on his community’s role in this partnership.

“It makes me proud,” Ungaro said.” It makes me emotional. It’s challenging for a Native American to live a life of dignity. This collaboration supports our way of life and that is important.”

Huong Nguyen, Aaron Smith, and Yan Chen take a break at the JSCEE • Photo by Carmen Hom

The importance of a diverse menu

Both Smith and Collins meet regularly with local community groups to help determine what scratch meals would culturally resonate with SPS’ student population. Some meals are directly inspired by feedback from these community meetings and others derive from the district’s diverse staff.

“Having a diverse group work on a menu, that’s how you get the best menu,” said Smith. “And one thing I learned: do not put dim sum on the menu!”

During a community meeting organized in collaboration with the Chinese Information and Service Center (CISC) of the Chinatown International District, Smith was surprised to be dissuaded from including dim sum, as community members cited the dishes’ costliness and complexity.

Smith said that it’s important for a student in West Seattle to learn about a culture from a different neighborhood like the Central District.

“It might be that one kid that might go to a predominantly white school, who might be the only person from that nationality at this school, who might not feel welcomed every day at their school,” he said. “But at least that one day, they could feel welcomed in the cafeteria and see something they can relate to. Every kid should feel welcome and I want to make sure that I put something out there that can make them feel welcome, at least for one day.”

A teacher-sized meal: Salmon alfredo, salad, orange slice, and a pear • Photo by Carmen Hom

Addressing current, future challenges

At the Seattle World School, there is no way a student would know the salmon was sourced from the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, no signage. Smith said it’s a district goal to educate kitchen staff on how to handle special ingredients respectfully, as well as the students on where their meals come from. 

Another big next step is to expand their outreach. Although Smith and Collins want every student to see themselves represented in SPS’ meals, it’s sometimes hard to reach the very students they hope to serve. 

“It’s complex. It’s so weird,” Smith said. “The kids who eat in the cafeteria are the hardest ones to reach. The easy-to-reach ones are the ones who don’t eat in the cafeteria because those are the ones who aren’t necessarily complaining but want to voice their opinion about what they don’t like.”

He hypothesized that the kids eating school lunch are generally quiet because of the stigma that kids eating from school cafeterias are poor and eating a school lunch takes away a meal from someone who needs it. It’s the opposite, Smith said. The more students that eat school lunch, the better the lunches can be.

As the lunch period wound down, Ungaro asked a question to the group, changing the tide of conversation. He looked pensively at the team around the table, wondering what would come after this lunch. How can the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe continue to support Seattle Public Schools? How can Seattle Public Schools continue to support the Muckleshoot? 

“[This collaboration] is something that we need to continue to build on. And what does that look like? You know, we’re not going nowhere and Seattle schools are not going anywhere. And I’m a dreamer. I’m a big dreamer.”

This story was produced in partnership with our media sponsor Communities of Opportunity, a growing movement of partners who believe every community can be a healthy, thriving community.

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