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.
Parent buy-in: With the backing of the council, Davis started building relationships to develop the district’s farm-to-school program. He knew that in order for the program to be successful, he also had to get parents on board. “In child nutrition programs, we have to get the parents to buy in and give the children money,” Davis says.
The first step was a waste survey. Davis says parents felt students were throwing out frozen produce, and money saved from the wasted food could be spent to purchase fresh, local products. What the survey found was that students were throwing out food purchased in the cafeteria at the same rate as the food brought from home. “This was quite an eye opener for parents, and they realized that they didn’t know enough about child nutrition programs,” he says. “This one moment is what really sent us in the correct direction.”
Cafeteria changes: When Davis came to the district, there was an à la carte line and a traditional hot lunch line where free and reduced lunches were offered, creating a “class system.” Compounding the problem was the use of colored trays: red trays were used on the hot lunch line because they had five compartments for the five components of a reimbursable meal and flat, blue trays were used on the à la carte line. Davis eliminated the colored trays, made the offerings in both lines identical and allowed all children, regardless of payment status, to participate in all food options. This move helped to more than double participation, increased the number of free and reduced applications in the high school by 23% and increased his commodity entitlement.
With the stigma of free lunch erased, Davis moved to breakfast, where a similar problem was occurring because the majority of participants were free and reduced students. Davis turned to Superintendent Collins, and the two qualified the district for Provision II breakfast, making the meal free for all students. Collins says, “Doug sees problems and barriers and works his way around those.” She says he does this by bringing problems to her with possible solutions This move, along with increased population and economic factors, has increased breakfast participation by 300%. For a time, breakfast counts actually exceeded those at lunch.
Another of Davis’ projects was the creation of student food groups. “One of the things the Burlington Food Council did was parent surveys,” he says. “I said, ‘That’s great, but really what a parent survey shows is what foods they want their kids to be eating. What I need to know is what foods those kids would actually eat.’ So we created a system in which kids could talk to me about what they want.”
The students said by the time they made it through the lines, not enough time was left in the 21-minute lunch period to eat and converse with their peers. So Davis made most items self-serve. “I know people are going to say this slows down the line because kids can’t make a choice,” he says. “We found that kids will make good choices and they will make them in a timely fashion.” A new point of sale system has also helped speed up service.
When concerns about the noise level during lunch were raised, Davis switched from traditional long tables to round ones to help control the volume. Once again, Collins offered support, and the district picked up half the tab.
Because Burlington has a high population of immigrants, many of whom are Muslim—more than 30 languages are spoken at the high school—Davis eliminated most pork from the menus. He also worked with students to add ethnic items to menus. “We like to think that our kids can find something that to them is a comfort food,” he says. What Davis found, however, was that international students tended to choose American food and vice versa.
Summer program: Davis has increased the summer meal program 50% to provide 1,000 lunches daily at 25 sites. The increase is due in part to more summer school students, but also because the site chosen for summer school is in a part of the city where all students can receive free meals. “I think we’re facing what could become a huge food crisis for families,” he says. “Schools need to step up and be diligent about what’s going on in their communities.”
As part of the summer school program, Davis takes the students to a nearby farm to harvest strawberries, which are then frozen and stored. “On the first day of spring, we have strawberry shortcake for the whole district [made from the frozen strawberries],” he says.
Both Collins and Nelson say one reason Davis has been so successful is the respect he has for his employees and community and the respect they show him in return. Nelson puts it this way: “People are willing to do things out of their comfort zone with him because he builds relationships through respect.”