By Lola Milholland
Co-founder and CEO of Umi Organic
I remember the first time I tried yakisoba. I was on a class trip to Japan in the 5th grade, in Nagoya at a summer fair with my host family. I was dressed in my first yukata, a dark blue summer cotton kimono with irises on it. It was the height of summer and extremely muggy, air sticky and thick. At this fair, men with cloth tied around their sweaty foreheads stood in front of massive cast iron griddles heaped with piles of glistening yakisoba noodles and sautéed vegetables. Sweet and savory, chewy and crunchy, I loved it so much I think I ate my whole plate in one big inhale.
On May 14, for the first time, Umi Organic yakisoba stir-fry noodles will be served for lunch in all Portland Public Schools. Our yakisoba noodles are made with 50 percent organic whole grains sourced from Camas Country Mill in Junction City, Ore.
On Umi noodle day, kids will enjoy a traditional Japanese meal of fresh roasted cabbage, carrots and noodles in yakisoba sauce, with optional chicken. We created this noodle specifically for schools after talking to several nutrition directors at the Ecotrust event Local Link, where I learned that schools require 50 percent or higher whole grain content in any grain products. Our goal was something delicious and chewy, without the typical preservatives, yellow food dyes, and unidentifiable ingredients.
For the past four years, parents at Richmond Elementary School, which houses a Japanese Immersion Program, have organized an annual Japanese cultural lunch to better bridge the classroom to the cafeteria. These lunches have had higher than average participation, and Whitney Ellersick, Senior Director of Nutrition Services for Portland Public Schools (PPS), took notice. Whitney told me that she’s seen kid’s palates change; Portland kids are more open to new foods than in the past, and she saw the success of these lunches as a sign that they could try to bring them district wide. “We are always excited when we see students expanding what they like to eat to include different foods that they may have not seen or experienced before,” she relays.
I attended Richmond Elementary School myself in the second-ever class of what we called the JMP (Japanese Magnet Program), then a fledgling attempt to groom a generation of cross-cultural ambassadors. Every day we studied in both Japanese and English. We sang Japanese children’s songs and celebrated Japanese holidays. We studied kanji in the morning and cursive in the afternoon.
“I think of nutrition directors as having to build jigsaw puzzles every day to meet all the federal meal requirements, with ingredients as the puzzle pieces.”
I remained in the immersion program through my senior year in high school. When I went to college, I studied Japanese cultural history, and at age 20, I moved to the heart of Kyoto to live with a host family for a year and study Japanese at Doshisha University. Living in Japan exposed me to the depth of Japanese food culture, with its heightened place-based sensibility and keen focus on balance. I have been obsessed ever since.
After college, I worked at Ecotrust for eight years. I was riveted when I learned that Portland is the largest wheat and barley export gate in the nation, and the vast majority of that wheat goes to Japan. That knowledge was the seed that later sprouted and inspired me to launch Umi Organic, with our focus on regional grains, direct relationships, and organic farming.
Getting our noodles into schools was both extremely challenging and also not hard at all. It was challenging because school nutrition requirements dictated at the federal level are difficult to navigate. I think of nutrition directors as having to build jigsaw puzzles every day to meet all the federal meal requirements, with ingredients as the puzzle pieces. If I hadn’t had the help of Amy Gilroy of the Department of Agriculture and Heidi Dupuis of the Department of Education I would literally never have figured out how to describe my product in a way that is useful to nutrition directors. At the same time, it was not hard at all because I had help all along the way: Richmond parents set the stage by trialing new things in the lunchroom; Ecotrust created a space where I could meet school nutrition directors; Whitney of PPS was completely receptive to working with me; and Food Corps helped me stage our taste test so I really believed that kids would love the noodles (there’s no way I would serve kids a noodle they didn’t like!).
Not to mention the Oregon legislation so many people, including Ecotrust, helped launch that makes it possible for Whitney to spend more for my product. Over the last 13 years, PPS has been slowly and intentionally making smart choices to make lunch healthier and source more local food. I worked at Ecotrust when we started partnering with PPS and focusing on farm to school statewide. Those efforts became state legislation that gives Oregon schools money to buy local food and create garden and farm education opportunities. (Oregon legislators are voting to renew the funding this month.)
Food is exciting to me because it is both an actor in and a reflection of how cultures navigate identity. How powerful that Portland students will be served not only Japanese yakisoba, made with Oregon-grown, organic wheat, but also whole grain tamales, Hermiston watermelons, Willamette Valley parsnips—foods that feed their bodies but also give them a sense of place, diverse cultures, seasonality, and the love and care of their community.
I couldn’t be more excited for this pilot lunch. If it’s a hit on this larger scale, you may find our noodles as a regular menu item next school year.