On 14 May 2019, I went to my old school, Richmond elementary, in Portland, Oregon, for a special lunch. It was the first districtwide yakisoba day, when every school would serve wheat noodles tossed with roasted vegetables. And not just any noodles: they were from a recipe that I’d developed for the school system’s 16,000-plus students who eat school lunch.
As I helped dish our noodles on to trays, I could hear excited kids lining up. Soon, to my absolute wonder, I heard them chanting, “Ya-ki-so-ba! Ya-ki-so-ba!” In that moment, I felt more connected to my community than I’d ever felt before.
My business’s noodles made it into every Portland school cafeteria that day due to parents who campaigned for good, culturally relevant food for their kids; a school system employee who wanted the same; and not least of all, Oregon state funding.
I grew up studying Japanese in Portland’s public schools and wanted to give back to the Japanese American community that had educated me. In 2016, my mom, a friend and I launched a noodle business called Umi Organic. I suggested the name umi – the Japanese word for “ocean” – to express the dynamic currents that tie Japan and Oregon together. Today, we sell fresh organic ramen and yakisoba noodles to groceries and restaurants up and down the west coast.
Richmond is a Japanese-language immersion school. Around 2015, Japanese parents began taking over lunch a few times a year to extend classroom lessons to the cafeteria. Yakisoba was their biggest hit. Whitney Ellersick, the nutrition services senior director of Portland public schools, noticed. In 2018, she asked if Umi would develop a fresh, wholegrain-rich yakisoba noodle to meet federal nutrition guidelines. Her other noodle option, she told me, was gummy and unappetizing.
I took the challenge. This was a chance to feed kids regardless of their household income, grow my business and affirm community identity. As Nathan Roedel, executive director of nutrition services at the Hillsboro school district, told me: “In our industry, it’s difficult to meet the flavor profile that our students are expecting.”
We had five months to develop a better noodle – one with a springy texture that Portland’s Japanese American community would embrace. It also needed enough wholegrain content to meet federal standards. We did extensive trials using local flours and decided to work with Camas Country Mill, a Eugene-based family-run mill that has competitive prices and a stable inventory. We incorporated the classic protein-rich Italian pasta flour, durum and Edison, a hard spring wheat adapted to our climate. Together they created a chewy, supple noodle.
Next, we had to figure out how to cook them in industrial kitchens with basic equipment. A cafeteria worker told me: “If your noodles can be prepared in a 350-degree oven, they’ll work.” We tested cooking techniques, and the most successful was tossing noodles in a small amount of oil and roasting them like a vegetable.
During those hectic months, we received support from the ecosystem of non-profits, state agencies, schools and others that make up the Oregon Farm to School and School Garden Network. We learned how to maneuver the US Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service’s crediting system, which is how manufacturers communicate to schools that their product meets nutrition regulations, fits into their meal plans and qualifies for partial federal reimbursement.
We asked for feedback from parents involved in the first yakisoba lunches and hosted a taste test with kids. Cafeteria workers, who are the real experts, continue to help refine our process. Last year, I fixed and ate lunch with every cafeteria worker in the Eugene school district.
I wouldn’t have undertaken any of this in most US states because schools couldn’t afford our noodles, which can cost 60 to 70 cents per serving without the added costs of distribution. School nutrition programs operate on anemic budgets. Lynne Shore, nutrition service director in Oregon’s Willamina district, told me she budgets around $1.88 for food and $2.11 for labor and benefits per meal.
But Oregon is one of more than a dozen states that offer a local food incentive program to schools. What started small – $200,000 for local procurement and food, farm and garden education in 2011 – kept going up. In 2023, the legislature awarded $10.6m to the Oregon Farm to Child Nutrition Program.
For the 2023-2025 biennium, the Oregon department of education will disburse up to $7m to sites including public schools and tribal and early-care centers for buying Oregon-grown and/or -processed food. The remainder will fund education (including school gardens, farm visits and cooking classes) and an equipment and infrastructure grant to help farmers and other food producers scale up to meet the specific needs of schools. This could mean money to buy anything from a tractor to niche machinery.
Ten million dollars is both a lot and a little. Schools still count pennies and depend on food provided to schools through the USDA Foods in Schools program. But this money is having a measurable impact. From 2019 to 2021, the grant empowered more than 144 districts and other entities to incorporate Oregon food into their menus. Amy Gilroy, the Oregon department of agriculture farm-to-school program manager, told me that in 2016, approximately 80 Oregon food businesses sold products to schools. Now it’s closer to 500.
As a small regional business committed to organic ingredients, Umi Organic can’t compete on price with large corporations that have economies of scale and a different suite of ethics. But Oregon districts can afford our product due to state incentives. In turn, we buy local flour, circulating the money we receive locally. In a regional food system, food travels shorter distances and guzzles less gas. And when the combination of Covid and the war in Ukraine contracted global flour supplies, we could still source our ingredients directly, ensuring there was food for families who depend on school meals.
In 2023, 34% of our annual revenue came from schools. School food sales anchor our small business.
Lucy De Leon is another beneficiary of this program. Born in Texas to two Mexican farm workers, De Leon and her family spent the first 10 years of her life always on the move: to New York for the cucumber harvest, Idaho for potatoes and Oregon for berries. For De Leon, the smell of home isn’t rooted in a single landscape. It’s the grassy aroma of corn husks filled with masa as she stands beside her mom, wherever they lived, steaming tamales in a big pot.
Many students in the Hillsboro school district, a suburb 40 minutes west of Portland, will recognize the smell wafting from the cafeteria when the district serves the whole-grain tamales that De Leon’s family business, Salsas Locas, makes. Forty per cent of its 20,000 students are Latino/a, and the county has one of the largest migrant and seasonal farm worker populations in the state.
Food is more than money and calories. The quality and cultural relevance affect whether kids feel welcome at school, cared for, safe to be themselves and nourished.
In the low-income community of Willamina, Mama Tee’s Farm grows veggies on 10 acres for the school salad bar. In Rogue River, Marvin’s Gardens raises cattle, pigs and lamb on pasture and sells maple sausage to the Central Point district. In Beaverton, family-run Vial Farms provides jupiter, vanessa and flame grapes to schools. And in Portland, Eleni’s Kitchen makes kulet – an Ethiopian flavor base – for stewing lentils or meat.
During one of my visits to McDaniel, one of the most diverse high schools in Portland – students of color make up more than 65% of the student body – I served myself crunchy, flavorful white kimchi from the salad bar. It was made only a few miles away by Choi’s Kimchi. I thought of all the Korean kids who’ve been taunted and ostracized for the smell of their lunches; yet here kimchi was, perfect with a plate of steaming yakisoba noodles and veggies.
“That moment of joy when you saw your food being served within the community you grew up in, we see that often,” Ellersick told me proudly.
In that moment, I realized my profound connection to my community has only deepened since that first districtwide yakisoba lunch – because I share that community and my food with so many others.
And then I sat down and dove into my delicious school lunch.
Lola Milholland is the co-founder and CEO of Umi Organic in Portland, Oregon. Her debut book, Group Living and Other Recipes, is coming from Spiegel & Grau in August.