On Local Sourcing for Mike McTaggart

Quest Food Management teachers students about healthier dining.

FSD talked with Mike McTaggart, president of Quest Food Management Services, about the company’s new Quest for Life program, which focuses on from-scratch cooking, local sourcing, and educating both parents and students.

Q. What is the Quest for Life program?

Quest For Life is a program that we started last summer. It’s a program about educating kids and helping them to make healthier choices and to teach them about where the food that they are eating is coming from. We have some initiatives tied to the program about sustainability and trying to be preservative free. We are trying to get things to where they are directly from a plant or an animal, so they are not processed. It’s a program developed with chefs. We’ve met with the students and they’ve helped us develop the entire program. They told us what they’d like to see on it and we’ve shown them options and explained what we are going to do and they helped us to create the whole program.

Q. What were some of the things the students said they wanted to see in their school meal program?

They wanted to see healthier, fresher stuff. They wanted to see things made to order. We created some things that we call action stations that every single day food is created right there for them. The pastas are tossed. The sauces are housemade. We did some pizza tastings. All our pizzas are made truly from scratch, not even from parbaked crust. We tested all the different types of pizza we could offer them, thin, thick, pan, and they decided on what kinds of pizzas they wanted. We rotate what’s in the salad bar seasonally, but they had a real input into what our healthy, organic salad bar was going to be like and what would be on it on a normal basis baring weather. The sustainability thing really impacts the salad bar, and I think the kids really understand it and when things are in season and when they are not and why they might see something for months and then not the next month.

Q. How is the program run at the Latin School of Chicago?

The Latin School was the first school since we developed Quest for Life that chose us. It’s an evolving thing. There are three chefs: Brad Newman, Steven Obendorf and Meghan Pollard. Those three chefs, along with the students and Quest, have taken the program to the level that it is at now. They are on premise at the Latin School. They do preparation and training. One of the first things we have to do [when we implement this program] is to create areas in the kitchen that are from-scratch areas. We took over and did a lot of training, and the chefs do that. Steven does a lot of educating of the students. Every single day he comes out and he tells the younger students where the food came from. For example, what farm the vegetable came from and how it was prepared. Brad is the executive chef and he is the one who is behind the daily menus, tasting with the students and seeing what they like. Local sourcing is one of his great prides. He works directly with farmers.

They have done cooking classes. They are very involved with the students, as well as with the parents. To introduce the program before we even became the supplier, we had committee meetings and we talked to the parents and students and we had some knife training classes, so that they could get the feeling that we are going to drop the box cutters and picking up knives and cooking from scratch. On Thursday mornings we have the kitchen open so that parents can come through and see what we are doing. We’ve done classes for parents and the students.

Q. Why did you feel starting this program was necessary?

I think there is a real desire and a need to learn about healthy food, to help kids make healthy choices, to involve them in the process and to help educate them for life. That’s where the Quest For Life part came in. We kept asking ourselves, ‘why are we going to this extend,’ and it’s truly so that we can teach these kids how to eat the right way from the time that they are young and we hope that they will carry it on for the rest of their lives.

Q. Is the Quest for Life program implemented in other schools in addition to the Latin School?

We’ve implemented parts of the program in a lot of our schools. We are doing a lot of knife training and sustainability initiatives in many schools. The goal of the whole program is to take bits of it and put it wherever it can be done.