Doug Davis: Community Supporter
When Doug Davis began working in the hospitality industry, he learned that customer satisfaction is key to success. He has been putting that knowledge to work during his 11 years as director of foodservice at the 3,800-student Burlington (Vt.) School District. Davis listens to the students, parents and community to help drive his program. The result: increased participation and a nationally recognized farm-to-school program.
Five years ago, before farm-to-school initiatives became a hot topic in school foodservice, Davis developed a successful model that allowed him to purchase more than 15,000 pounds of locally grown produce last year, a significant jump from the 300 pounds the first year of the project.
Community support: The district’s farm-to-school program started with a meeting with the Burlington Legacy Project, a group that helps organizations in the city implement sustainability initiatives, and a simple question about the availability of local produce in school cafeterias. After a survey showed parents’ desire for local foods, Davis decided to respond to their wishes and formed a partnership with the Legacy Project. “We thought if we don’t move with them and they move on without us and dictate to us, that would be more challenging,” Davis says.
From that point, using money from a USDA grant, the Burlington Food Council was born. Davis says if it weren’t for this community group and the support he receives from it, his program would not do what it can now. “It wasn’t all dropped on my desk,” he says, adding that the group took the time to learn about child nutrition programs. Abbie Nelson, co-director for VT FEED (Food Education Every Day), a collective of three non-profits and a partner in the district’s farm-to-school program, says it was this collaborative sharing that has made the program successful. “The collaboration has led us to be more useful on a state and national level. We want to share our story and our successes,” she adds.
One unexpected result was donations from local restaurants and artists, who last year donated about $10,000 to the foodservice department.
Local loyalty: The first thing Davis did before implementing the farm-to-school program was to get students to buy in. “Doug’s greatest asset is that he keeps the children at the center of everything he does,” Nelson says. To do this, Davis staged monthly taste tests to get student input. “We need to have the kids see a new food eight to 10 times before they can take it willingly and comfortably,” he says about why taste tests are important when implementing new menu items. Davis says students ran the testing tables because students are more willing to try new food items from a peer than an adult. Jeannie Collins, the district’s superintendent, says, “Doug encourages students to get involved in the entire nutrition process. For him, it’s about enjoying the kids and not just feeding them what’s cheap.”
One of the biggest successes Davis has had is a salad bar, which began simply as a station for garnishing sandwiches. When Davis started offering made-to-order sandwiches in 2003, he decided to let students choose what garnishes they wanted. “We thought if the kids can choose what sandwich they want,” he says, “they can choose to garnish their own sandwiches.”
Davis tested the idea with bins of different lettuces, tomatoes, onions, olives and cucumbers. “We noticed that the kids did a really good job of putting it on themselves,” he says. “We also found that kids were making salads on their plates with the garnishes for the sandwiches. That’s when we had a philosophy shift. We saw that when the kids are given the opportunity to make their own choices, they’re making decent choices.” This fall, all 10 schools will have a salad bar.
Even though a lot of the produce Davis buys is offered in its raw form on these salad bars, he also purchases items for other uses. For example, every summer Davis uses 50 bushels of basil from a local farm to make 45 gallons of pesto to use for pizzas, sauces and spreads. “We’ve gone from a place where we call farmers in the fall to ask what they have to sell, to a place where we now meet with 12 or 15 farmers in December and we create growing contracts,” he says.