Jaxson Thibodeau, a fourth grader at McMahon Elementary School in Lewiston, finishes his sample of Bariis Iskukaris rice Wednesday in the school’s cafeteria. “I love it. Can we get more?” he asked after his last bite. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

LEWISTON — McMahon Elementary School fifth grader Audrey Desjardins usually hates trying new things. But on Wednesday, she took a chance on a small cup of Bariis Iskukaris during a taste-testing at school and loved it.

Bariis Iskukaris, a traditional dish from Somalia made with basmati rice and a mixture of spices, was the first culturally relevant taste-test at McMahon. Every couple of months, FoodCorps members organize a taste-testing at the school to encourage kids to try new, unprocessed foods made from scratch.

A fourth grader at McMahon Elementary School grabs a sample of Bariis Iskukaris rice Wednesday in the school cafeteria. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

In the past year, students at McMahon have tried blueberries, roasted butternut squash, mashed cauliflower and apple French toast. But encouraging students to try foods such as Bariis Iskukaris is especially significant, FoodCorps member Quinn Schach said.

In his experience, schools tend to be offer traditional American foods like hot dogs, pizza and chicken nuggets for lunch, with little variation. Offering a traditional Somali cuisine would help Somali and other east African students feel more welcome, he said.

“I think that in a school setting, I think food is only viewed as something of nutritional value,” Schach said. “But food is just so powerful. It can do so many things, you know, it can help with cultural identity, can help shape cultures (and) creates memories.”

Schach, fellow FoodCorps member Eliza Guion and St. Mary’s Nutrition Center Community Food Supervisor Mumina Isse thought Bariis Iskukaris was a great food to offer, both for its importance in Somali culture and its familiarity. Most students have eaten rice in some form.


Ultimately, they hope to add it to the regular lunch menu at McMahon. From what they heard Wednesday, many students would support the addition.

Graeclyn Hutchins, a fourth grader at McMahon Elementary School, puts a sticker on a survey board after trying a sample of Bariis Iskukaris rice Wednesday in the school’s cafeteria. “I didn’t like the garlic taste,” she said after putting down the sample and grabbing a hot dog. Holding the board is FoodCorps service member Quinn Schach, who helped make the rice. Helping him pass out stickers is student Trinity Brown. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Desjardins wasn’t the only one who liked Bariis Iskukaris. The three girls sitting near her, all of whom tried it for the first time, agreed the rice was tasty and flavorful.

Fifth grader Eva Whalen said she liked it so much, she asked other students to give her their rice. She got five extra cups for the effort, she shared proudly.

The Bariis Iskukaris served at McMahon included diced onion, cilantro, garlic, cinnamon, cumin and bay leaves.

Schach and Guion prepared the dish Tuesday afternoon in the school kitchens and stored it until Wednesday when it was heated and offered to students.

To gauge their opinions, Guion and Schach surveyed students throughout lunch. About four out of five students tried it, with 81% of students reporting they either loved or liked it.


FoodCorps is a national nonprofit focused on increasing access to nutritious meals in schools. The organization has helped develop programming in Lewiston with the help of St. Mary’s nutrition center for more than a decade.

In addition to McMahon, FoodCorps members are also working to grow a nutrition and garden education at Montello Elementary School, having already established a program at Connors Elementary School.

The culturally relevant taste test was inspired by similar efforts in Portland and Westbrook schools, where the student population is similarly diverse, Schach said.

“Some of the stuff I’ve heard from kids today is just really meaningful,” Guion said. “Someone said, ‘this tastes like home,’ and I think that’s really important for our schools, to feel like a place that is welcoming for students and have that connection to home, especially for someone who might be a newer arrival to this place.”

Elizia Guion, foreground, cuts onions as Quinn Schach adds cilantro and garlic to a blender Tuesday afternoon in the cafeteria of McMahon Elementary School in Lewiston. The two FoodCorps service members were preparing a Somali rice dish called Bariis Iskukaris for students to sample and vote on during Wednesday’s lunch period. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

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