Louis Ortiz sits at a table in the Eastside Memorial High School cafeteria in a crisp white shirt. Ortiz isn't a student, though. He's the district's new executive chef, and he's trying to spice up the district's lunch menu by adding new ethnic foods and more local fruits and vegetables from Johnson's Backyard Garden.
“It’s a globalized world that we’re in anyway, and that’s so much more evident with food," Ortiz says.
Ortiz surveyed more than 300 middle and high school students in the district and found that students want more options. They requested more authentic Mexican food like carne guisada and tacos al pastor, rather than Tex-Mex options. Students also requested pho, kabobs, and falafel.
"It's not just that the chef is Hispanic," Ortiz says, laughing. "It’s all part of the deal. What did these folks grow up with? What’s Texan, what’s endemic to the region? When they say pork carnitas, what does that look like to them versus what it says on the internet?”
Nearly a third of Austin public school students don’t speak English at home, and the languages that students are speaking are diverse—more than 90 different languages.
This month, Ortiz is unveiling a new Asian-inspired salad bar with edamame in elementary schools.
Students at the district’s International High School especially appreciate the push for more ethnic food. All of the students are recent immigrants to the United States. Yaseen moved here a year ago from Iraq. He wants more food like biryani and tabbouleh. His classmate, Khoa Doan, moved to the United States from Vietnam. Doan especially misses white rice.
“I don’t know what you do with the rice," Doan said, with a slightly embarrassed laugh. "You make it yellow? Yeah, I don’t know what happened. I think you should put fish in there."
Austin ISD serves brown rice to keep with national school nutrition standards, but the school district is hoping to add Vietnamese food to the menu by next school year.