Meserete Davis has 12 years of experience with the New York City Department of Education SchoolFood program. She currently holds the position of Research and Development Supervisor for New York City SchoolFood, in which she manages all products from conception to menu, develops and maintains SchoolFood specifications in conjunction with informing management of the latest trends and research surrounding the food and service to children.
How did you get started working at SchoolFood?
I came across New York City SchoolFood while studying for my Bachelors of Science in Culinary Nutrition at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, RI. New York City SchoolFood was one of the organizations attending the yearly career fair to hire potential SchoolFood Service Mangers. As I spoke with the recruiter about the roles and responsibilities of a Food Service Manager, I became extremely interested in being a part of serving 860,000 meals a day to NYC Students. My interest sparked enough curiosity to land me an externship position for 3 months during my senior year. Within those three months I learned so much about SchoolFood and wanted to become part of such an amazing team. I grew up in the Bedford Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn and during that time SchoolFood wasn’t considered the best food to eat. Working as an intern for 3 months, I was interested in helping to change that perception. I applied for an official position as a SchoolFood Service Manager and was offered the position prior to graduation. I was a manager for 2 years and then became the Regional Chef of the Bronx for 5 years. In my next position, I served for two years as the Project Manager for the Garden to Café Program as well as managed a $3 million dollar grant from the state to institute a Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program within some of the city’s schools.. I then moved onto my current role as the Product Research and Development Supervisor.
Can you describe briefly how you make decisions on your food purchases, what is the process? Are students involved?
There are many factors that can influence what products we look to procure such as: menu needs, SchoolFood Menu Writer Requests, updated USDA or City Nutritional Standards or if a Broker or Vendor has presented SchoolFood with a new concept. As SchoolFood is committed to serving the highest quality food and in order to maintain these standards, we ask that manufacturers follow certain steps when introducing all products to SchoolFood. From those ideas, SchoolFood will issue a Product Outreach (a document created for desired products that describes attributes and requirements for a specific product) that is sent to over 450 of our industry partners for product responses. If manufacturers or food brokers have products that meet the outreach, they are required to electronically submit product submission forms, ingredient lists and nutrition panels for each item to me for review. Upon approval of all documents, samples may be requested. We invite a class of about 35 students twice a week to our offices for a field trip in which students will sample an array of products that we anticipate placing on our menus. Products will go through a series of 4 student panel evaluations and receive a pass or fail conclusion. If the item has successfully passed panel testing, we will move forward to the next stage of the R&D process in which I create a food specification for the item. If a product has failed panel testing, the manufacturer or broker is then notified and is allowed to reformulate the product based on the commentary provided by the students and me. If the reformulated product is deemed acceptable, we will retest with students. Products are evaluated with students as they are our customers and we want to ensure the menus reflect products they deem acceptable.
How do you balance quality, taste, serving 860,000 meals daily, waste – all while trying to serve healthier food?
With our student population being so diverse, our Chef of Menu Development does an excellent job of incorporating different types of menu options with great representation of many different nationalities. SchoolFood is committed to the highest standards of nutrition while offering fresh, appetizing, and delicious food to all New York City students and we do just that! During the product evaluation field trips, students evaluate products based on the taste, texture, appearance and flavor profile. Director of SchoolFood, Dennis Barrett’s main vision is to change the face of SchoolFood. When we meet with prospective manufacturers or brokers about products, we go a step further to ask what products they sell to the retail outlets or restaurants with which they do business. We want our consumers to feel that they are getting a restaurant style dining experience rather than a cafeteria experience when it comes to our menu choices. The quality and taste go hand in hand with products as there is an extended list of prohibited ingredients manufacturers are required to adhere to in order to submit product. As an example we do not allow any artificial flavors, colors additives or preservatives. Were also moving to ensure all of our products are free of High Fructose Corn Syrup . We work very hard to stay with the trends, if not ahead.
Do kids reject healthy food initially? How do you handle that from a purchasing perspective? Do you have thoughts on how to increase consumption of healthier foods?
With change there will always be some sort of push-back. However 2 years prior to the UDSA instituting the new standards for School Food Service, New York City had already begun the process of offering lower sodium products as well as the reformulation of all of our grain products to be 51% whole grain or 100% whole-wheat. Change was gradual, which helped with the acceptability of the bread and grain items. Students did not reject the products, as they still consumed the items. We still offer healthier versions of their favorite menus items such as pizza, which has a whole-wheat crust, low-sodium tomato sauce and low-fat, low-sodium mozzarella cheese. More so, it was important to educate the SchoolFood staff and school community on the proposed standards and why SchoolFood was moving in this direction. It helped that we offered samples of products to students during breakfast and lunch service in dining rooms. Students were able to sample new or reformulated products prior to their scheduled menu dates. Our Supervisors, SchoolFood Managers, Culinary Instructors and Senior Team also attended school PTA meetings and other gatherings to provide parents and guardians with the samples products that we are serving to their students. From a purchasing perspective, I work with manufacturers to try to maintain the same appearance and texture as the previous product prior to any reformulations. If applicable, we request that ingredients such as fresh herbs or different spices be used and to be visible to add to the “flavor profile” of products requiring lower sodium. During the initial change, SchoolFood worked alongside current manufacturers in developing reformulated products from conception to plate. We still work very closely with our manufacturers to ensure we are procuring the best product. Education is the key to increase consumption of healthier foods. It starts with educating the students on the benefits of consuming healthy foods, which we do touch on when they come to our offices for their field trips. It is also important to educate their families and school community any way that we can. When a person is educated in how to understand ingredients as well as nutritional labels it helps shape their food choices.
How do you measure plate waste? Is there an increase in plate waste when there is an introduction to healthier foods?
We do not currently have an official waste monitoring process. However, SchoolFood Service Mangers as well as their kitchen staff check trash cans regularly to monitor waste and visit with students to get to know the likes and dislikes of their customer and pass on menu recommendations. Breakfast and lunch numbers are up from last year and continue to increase. Students have a choice during service as meals are “Offer vs. Serve” – students are able to choose 3 out of 4 components for breakfast and 3 of 5 components for lunch, which helps with waste.
What is the biggest challenge for SchoolFood in serving healthy foods? Also, for clarification purposes, what is defined as “healthy” according to SchoolFood?
I wouldn’t say that serving healthy food is a challenge, the bigger challenge is procuring food that meets our standards. In conjunction with the USDA nutritional standards, SchoolFood also follow New York City Agency Food Standards. Created by the New York City Health Department, the New York City Food Standards include restrictions on sodium levels for products we procure. There is also a dietary fiber threshold.  To SchoolFood, a healthy product is one that meets the standards while also providing appearance and taste that is acceptable to students. Prior to the new standards it wasn’t easy to find certain products, but with more school districts getting on board, better products are available.
You have several important initiatives, is there one particular program you are most excited about and which seems to be most effective? Also, can you provide one important case study of the impact of this particular program?
My personal favorite is the Garden to Café Program. Garden to Café is a program of the NYC Department of Education, Office of SchoolFood, and key partner Grow to Learn: the Citywide School Garden Initiative. The program connects school gardening and school lunch through seasonal harvest events and educational activities. It was really rewarding working with the students during the harvest events, harvesting what they grew. The students were always so excited to give me background information on their gardens as well as what their role was in the process. During the harvest events we would create a dish using what they grew and created tasting samples for the entire school. It brought a sense of community with the students, they were proud to share with their peers the fruits of their labor.
What do you believe to be the greatest food policy challenges for New York City SchoolFood? And the greatest opportunities?
From a national perspective SchoolFood is unique. Not only do we follow the USDA Standards for purchased food; we adhere to standards set by the NYC Department of Health which has more stringent sodium and fiber requirements. The greatest challenge is finding products that meet the required NYC sodium standards for what we consider “Center of the Plate items”. These items are not to exceed 480mg sodium. Manufacturers and vendors that do not meet the NYC sodium targets are required to reformulate products to these standards. Being the largest school district in the nation, manufacturers and vendors have the opportunity to create healthier products that can be utilized by all school districts.
What is the one food policy change at the local (or state or federal) level that would have the greatest impact on healthier SchoolFood?
In efforts to offer pre-packaged meals to off-site locations, the unitized meals served must contain all 5 required components. Currently, those products mentioned exceed 480 mg, but are less than or equal to the 770 mg sodium requirements for regular meal service. The current NYC sodium standards restricts SchoolFood from sourcing these types of meals from outside vendors.An alleviation of the 480 mg sodium restriction would open the door to more product sourcing.
Can you explain a bit about NYC SchoolFood’s involvement in the Urban School Food Alliance? www.urbanschoolfoodalliance.org has all of the information there.
Food policy websites you read: I recently became a member of NYCNEN (NYC Nutrition Education Network)
 The NYC Agency Food Standards are available here and apply to meals and snacks purchased and served, as well as food and beverage vending machines. There are additional standards around trans fat, dairy, juice, and canned/frozen fruit and vegetables.