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Staff Photo/Allie Vugrincic Heather Morgan with Howland High School Food Service, right, serves Polish dishes to sophomore Leah Mickel, left, during lunch Friday. Howland High School’s Cultural Awareness Week featured an international lunch dish each day for two weeks.

HOWLAND – While students at Howland High School can’t visit a different part of the world every day, they can certainly eat like international travelers.

For the past two weeks, Howland High School has served a dish from a different culture every day as part of the second Student Senate Cultural Awareness Week.

“Everyone likes it. Everyone’s always like, ‘what’s the food tomorrow, we’re so excited,'” said Lauren Roberts, co-chair of the Student Senate and co-organizer of the event.

She said the student senate wanted to bring cultural awareness to the school and first started with an after school program. “diversity dialogue” where a person or group introduced their culture to the students.

“And that kind of stuff came up in our cultural awareness week with food,” said Roberts.

Dishes — from Spanish paella and plantains to Middle Eastern samosas and hummus and Hungarian stuffed cabbage — were created by food service supervisor Justin Pancake.

Pancake said international menus were “to think outside the box and get (students) to try something they wouldn’t normally do.

Pancake, a 23-year-old cook with a background in fine, home cooking, said he wanted to make dishes as authentic as possible while staying on a budget and adhering to normal guidelines for school meals, with nutritional standards established. The biggest challenge in creating the meals was getting the supplies he needed to create all those unique flavors – he had to visit an Indian grocery store in Niles to get the right spices to make chicken masala, for example.

The effort was worth it: students found new favorite foods and some brought their own cultural experience to the table, discussing the food and how it was different or similar to what they know.

“We have a very diverse representation of world cultures within our school,” Principal Joseph Simko said.

Students were encouraged to try each dish with a “passport” sticker incentive program, where students who completed their passports were entered into a draw to win a $25 Visa gift card. This year, lunches are free for students thanks to COVID-19 assistance.

“I think there’s a big stigma around different cultures. We all somehow stay true to our own cultures,” said Catie Gajski, co-chair of the Senate and co-organizer of the event. She said the sticker program encourages students to try foods from new cultures “and be surprised what they liked.”

Pancake said some items — like gyros — have proven so popular that he’s trying to add them to the cafeteria’s regular rotation.

Gajski and Roberts both expressed hope that the student senate will continue the event next year and perhaps expand it to other buildings in the school district.

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