CAMBRIDGE — Kelp-based foods are making their way onto K-12 school lunch menus — to some surprising reviews.
“It’s like heaven on earth,” Agustina Leon Perdomo, a 16-year-old junior at Cambridge Rindge and Latin, said, describing the walnut-sized, marbled-green “kelp bite” she popped into her mouth after dipping it daintily into a small container of yogurt tzatziki sauce.
The kelp bites — also known as a “kelp ball,” “veggie nugget,” or “seaweed-ish meatball” — are made chiefly with Maine sugar kelp, a brown seaweed that packs a nutritious punch, and green chickpeas, which add a rich flavor profile similar to asparagus, fava beans, or fresh peas.
To Leon Perdomo, the kelp bites taste like falafel. “It’s a good pick-me-up in the middle of the day to get some lemon and tzatziki,” she noted before tucking back into a heaping serving of veggie nuggets accompanied by brown rice, sauteed Bok choy, and steamed carrots.
Kelp bites are a new healthy food choice served in all Cambridge public schools on this late spring day. Kelp foods are also offered, or soon will be, in Somerville, Ashland, Boston, and Chicopee public schools.
In Cambridge, the veggie nuggets were introduced through a unique collaboration between Mellissa Honeywood, director of food and nutrition services at Cambridge Public Schools, Project Green Plate, a student-led initiative at the high school, and North Coast, a third-generation, family-owned seafood business.
On this “kelp day,” spearheaded by the student group, the veggie nuggets are being served in Cambridge Rindge and Latin’s smaller cafeteria, and the cuisine’s creator, North Coast chef Andrew Wilkinson, is handing out free samples for students to try.
Wearing a white chef’s coat and blue gloves, Wilkinson enthusiastically greets passersby while dishing out samples onto a small paper plate with a side of what he calls Greek salsa, a tangy mélange of pickled cucumber, pickled quinoa, red onion, fresh dill, chickpea puree, and a touch of red pepper.
Teens in hoodies crowd the table in groups of three or four. Some silently accept the offer and hasten to find a seat. Others banter with Wilkinson, exclaiming, “Free samples!” or “I love healthy food!” or “Not bad. I really like the salsa.” Or simply, “Kelp day!”
Others walk by, throwing glances but not stopping. Still others come back for seconds, which makes Wilkinson beam.
“I love creating things for schools because a lot of the stuff that’s out there is sort of terrible,” he said.
Wilkinson trained at the American Culinary Institute and was executive chef at the Rainbow Room in New York City and chef-partner at Skipjack’s Restaurant Group before joining North Coast. Originally from Maine, Wilkinson said he was motivated to develop a tasty kelp-based food that’s good for the planet and that could help Maine lobstermen diversify into kelp farming.
“I love the plant-based. I love the helpfulness of it. I love the story of the [kelp] farmers in Maine, that they’re lobstermen looking to diversify because of climate change,” he said.
The pandemic gave Wilkinson the opportunity to lock himself in the kitchen until he perfected the recipe, which also includes brown rice, pea protein, basil, extra virgin olive oil, pea starch, chickpea flour, oat fiber, spices (garlic, salt, red pepper flakes), lemon, and plant fiber. A five-bite serving contains 13 grams of protein.
Kids seem to enjoy the simple recipe’s fresh taste.
“What we really like about them is that they’re not trying to be fake being meat,” Nicolas Valayannopoulos-Akrivou, a senior and founder of Project Green Plate, said. “We like that kelp is its own thing, and it tastes really good.”
In fact, the kelp bites are quintessential comfort food — warm, soft, and meaty but not dense, with a mild, basil flavor that can be jazzed up with sauces, whether tzatziki, barbeque, spaghetti, or Wilkinson’s Greek salsa.
Valayannopoulos-Akrivou and his twin sister, Luna-Nefeli, helped launch Project Green Plate as freshmen in response to Cambridge’s “Glocal Challenge,” which encourages students to find local solutions to global problems, such as saving water. They created Project Green Plate to focus on reducing water waste created by the meat industry.
The students asked Honeywood what they could do in their school cafeteria. They were “just trying to get a better idea of how we make decisions and the food that we offer, then really advocating for more vegetarian options,” Honeywood said.
When Wilkinson approached Honeywood earlier this year with the kelp bites, Honeywood thought, bingo! Kelp is grown in the ocean. It doesn’t require land, feed, fresh water, or fertilizer to grow, and it helps the planet by removing carbon dioxide from the oceans.
Honeywood decided to step out of the way and let Project Green Plate run with the idea.
“I can put new items on the menu and just have it be available, but I feel that it has a better reception when there are peers who are encouraging other students to give it a try,” she said.
Peer-to-peer encouragement appears to work.
The high school served 50 plates of kelp bites, which was 80 percent of what they prepared, according to Dana McLaughlin, senior communications specialist for Cambridge Public Schools. Although that’s a fraction of the 600 to 700 lunches that the school serves daily, Honeywood stressed that students are given many choices in two cafeterias with deli, salad, soup, pasta, and chef stations. Plus, it’s only the second time the kelp bites have been served.
Student feedback has been largely positive, Jing O’Neil, a senior and Project Green Plate member said, although the group has had to address some misperceptions.
“People think that kelp is slimy. People also associate it [with] when you go to the beach and you feel seaweed on your ankle,” said O’Neil.
Potential sliminess did not dissuade freshmen Alexia Galvao and Emily Wintner, however.
“We were intrigued. We’d never heard of kelp day,” Galvao said, who chose a meal of kelp bites, green salad, Bok choy and carrots, and drinks from a gallon jug of chai tea she brought from home. “It’s not bad. I’d give it a 10,” she added.
Asked what comes to mind when she thinks of kelp, Galvao answered, “The Ocean. Whales.”
“I don’t think of school. I never thought I’d get it at school.”