Food & Dining: Curry For School Lunch?
A retired couple strives to bring Indian flavors to schools across the U.S.
As an Indian kid growing up in the U.S., taking pungent curries and oily achar in your school lunch box may have been a head-turner in the past. Today, a growing diversity of student population, along with the push to be inclusive of all cultures, is driving schools across the U.S. to include Indian dishes as part of their hot lunch rotations.
[Left] Retired IT professionals Sara Parthasarathy and Partha Sabniviss are now pursuing their dream of normalizing Indian food in American schools.
Starting in 2024, the Los Angeles Unified School District, which is one of the largest school districts in the country, will start serving Aloo Curry made with spice kits from Flavor Temptations. Chana masala and chicken tikka will be added to the menu soon after.
“We are a vegetarian Indian family and when our son attended public school, he was presented with only two vegetarian lunch options: cheese pizza or salad,” says Sara Parthasarathy and Partha Sabniviss, founders of Flavor Temptations. The Madison, Wisconsin-based immigrants from Chennai are retired IT professionals who are now pursuing their dream—to teach Indian cooking to the next generation.
They incorporated Flavor Temptations in 2012 with the simple concept of a deconstructed masala dabba. Instead of measuring by spoons and pinches, or buying premixed masala packets, they decided to show people how to cook Indian food the right way. Each spice is packed separately—not pre-blended and numbered, so you know which one to add at what point in the cooking process. You can also customize the salt and heat according to your preference.
Initially, Parthasarathy and Sabniviss made these meal kits for their friends and college-bound kids who wanted to learn to cook Indian food. But within five years, they were selling their kits in over 75 retail stores.
As luck would have it, a large school district in Minnesota approached them and asked them to make the spice kits on a much larger scale for about 30,000 students. Figuring out the sizable measurements required some math, and that’s where Sabniviss’s previous experience in finance came in handy. The school district did a taste test with their children and found that over 80 percent of their students were interested in having an Indian entree on their menu. Flavor Temptations had found a new customer segment which also enabled them to teach about Indian food and culture to the next generation.
Food service directors have a genuine interest in providing global flavors and more plant-based items to their students. School cafeterias are trying to get away from bake-and-serve foods. They want more fresh-cooked, plantforward, and nutritious lunches. Processed plant-based foods like Beyond Burgers are expensive, so they want to be more plant-forward and source fresh ingredients from local farmers. Also, many schools receive additional grants when they serve 40 percent or more fresh-cooked food.
Often, they just don’t know where to start or how to go about it. The USDA regulates the sodium content in school lunches, and staples like chicken nuggets take away 50 percent of the sodium quota. “The schools love us because we have no sodium in our products. All our spices are organic, aromatic, flavorful, and directly sourced from India. We make it easier for the lunch ladies and inexperienced chefs by labeling each step and explaining the process of Indian cooking. We also tailor the products to the students’ taste palates and school kitchens. Some of the schools don’t have stoves, they only have commercial ovens and other equipment that we have to modify the dishes for. We created semi-scratch sauces that they can mix with commodity proteins like chickpeas which are often uneaten by kids. Instead of putting it on a salad bar, they can now have flavorful chana masala and rice,” explains Parthasarathy.
[Top to Bottom] Channa masala (Photo: Angie Richey), chicken tikka masala (Photo: Chef Rebecca Polson), and curried potato wraps (Photo: Angie Richey) are some of the Indian-flavored options by Flavor Temptations that are now showing up in school cafeterias in Minnesota and California.
Creating this brand-new business idea after retirement has been very fulfilling for the couple. They have realized that many kids in the U.S. don’t have the luxury to eat out at different kinds of restaurants, but diverse school lunches can help expose them to new foods and cultures. This is true for all cuisines, and it seems that after watching cooking shows and celebrity chefs with diverse faces, students are also asking for new dishes.
The aroma of curries has certainly attracted more kids to go to school cafeterias. Parthasarathy and Sabniviss’s 10- year-old granddaughter is often probed by her classmates and teachers about what’s in her lunchbox. But this time it is more out of genuine curiosity and desire for new flavors.
Flavor Temptation plans to partner with more school districts across the country to bring new Indian flavors to their menus. They believe it will ease the burden on Indian parents who struggle to source nutritious, vegan, or vegetarian lunches in the cafeterias.
Next time, when you are driving past your neighborhood school and smell the aroma of Indian cooking, don’t be surprised. Maybe you want to stop by and find out what’s for lunch.
Sucheta Rawal is an award-winning food and travel writer who has traveled to over 100 countries across seven continents, experiencing the world through her palate. She has been named one of the most influential cultural bloggers in the world for her blog Go Eat Give. Find her on social @SuchetaRawal.
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