Five Questions for: Miguel Villarreal

FoodService Director - Five Questions for Miguel Villarreal - Novato USDFollowing the Hallmark/Westland Meat Packing beef recall in 2008, Miguel Villarreal, director of food and nutritional services for 7,500-student Novato Unified School District in California, eliminated all beef products from the menus. Villarreal talked to FSD about his reasons for taking beef off the menus and if he’ll ever add the protein again.

Why did you take all beef products off the menu?

It wasn’t a hard decision at all. I’ve been in this business almost 30 years. During that time period there have been numerous beef recalls. For me, it was about three years ago [with the Hallmark/Westland recall] that was the final straw. I thought, “Why am I even putting these kids at risk?” The primary reason for taking beef products off the menu was that I didn’t want to continue having to deal with this.

What was the reaction to the move?

Over the years I had been reducing the amount of beef we had been serving. I haven’t been sending my commodity dollars into the beef venue. When the decision was made to eliminate beef there were only a few beef items still on the menu. It wasn’t like the kids all the sudden didn’t have beef. I have a veggie burger in place of the beef burger. We didn’t have any reaction from the students.

Marin County, where we are located, has a lot of cattle farmers. If there were any concern, it would have come from them. I’ve been working with the local farmers for quite some time now and I said, “Look, I can’t afford to buy your grass-fed, organic beef and I’m not about the serve the kids the beef I’m getting from the USDA.” I’m not saying kids shouldn’t eat beef. I’m saying I’m not going to serve the beef that’s been made available to me. That stopped that. What were they going to say, “OK, I’ll sell the beef to you at that cost?”

I did get some calls from other vendors. There was a vendor that told me that they had some products with beef in it that was grass-fed beef. This was several years ago and it was more than I was willing to pay. They know now just not to come around because I’m not serving it. I don’t serve any pasta or burritos with beef in it.

What menu changes did you make in conjunction with removing beef from the menus?

We still offer pork, chicken and cheese items so there is plenty of protein available. In dishes we switched from beef to turkey or another protein. I also increased the number of vegetarian entrée choices when I decided to eliminate beef. My goal is to provide students with healthier food choices that are primarily plant based.

Beef isn’t the only food item that has been recalled in the past three years. Why is beef the only item you’ve decided to eliminate?

Just recently in California we had a spinach recall, so you might ask why didn’t you take that off the menu? For me, with beef it was more than just the recalls. I’m trying to provide an education for our community to show them the environmental concerns. If you look at beef, it takes a lot of water, grain and other natural resources to produce it the way it’s being farmed. So this is our way of telling our students and community that we are also concerned with what goes on in our world and that we are trying to be better stewards of our land.

Will you ever add beef back onto your menus?

I will add beef back to the menus if I can get grass-fed beef from local farmers that is available at the same price as the beef I get from the USDA. For me, I’m making a statement on what I am seeing in our industry.

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