Anyone exposed to noncommercial foodservice knows it’s not for the faint of heart. The staggering volumes, the diversity of the customer base, the bossiness of the stakeholders, the mandate of meeting contradictory demands on a budget about equal to a teenager’s weekly allowance—there are far easier ways to make a living.
But this is not a business of hard-assed taskmasters collecting a paycheck without a hint of warmth or humanity. As several standouts in the field proved incontrovertibly at MenuDirections, the best in noncom are lion-hearted change agents who master the business because it’s the means of addressing a much higher goal, be it saving children, setting young adults on a path that will prolong their lives, or feeding the infirm something that will help to revive their spirits along with their bodies. The industry abounds in big minds, but the hearts are truly bodacious.
Consider the virtual bass drum that’s been beating inside Zia Ahmed throughout his rise to the top foodservice job at The Ohio State University, a showcase operation. Along the way, Ahmed earned sufficient respect from his peers to be elected president of NACUFS, and few would dispute he’s one of his segment’s standard setters.
No one in the industry knew until MenuDirections that Ahmed had a dark past that almost precluded his present life. Growing up in Bangladesh during a famine, he and his family would stay up all night because it was the only way they could tolerate the lack of food. They knew the scourge of food insecurity all too intimately.
“This is the first time I’ve publicly shared this story, because food security is a serious issue at this time,” said Ahmed. In his backyard of Ohio, for instance, one in seven people struggles to survive on an insufficient amount of food.
He aired his experiences on the stage, before 160 peers, because he wanted them to help spare other children from ever-consuming hunger by donating to No Kid Hungry.
“We need to give these kids an opportunity, just as I had an opportunity to live my life, to realize my dreams,” he said.
Ahmed said his fear is that youngsters with the brains to solve the problem of food insecurity will never get a chance to end the crisis because of hunger’s toll on their souls and bodies.
Nurturing up-and-coming generations is the whole reason to be in the business, suggested Sara Gasiorowski, the school foodservice dynamo who was honored during the conference as FoodService Director’s 2016 FSD of the Year. One of the feats that earned her that recognition was the conversion of two school buses into feeding stations that could be wheeled to places where youngsters tend to congregate in the summer. With school in recess, the kids might not have enough to eat otherwise.
Gasiorowski had to scrape together the money, find the talent and do it during a season when many school employees are focused keeping their pina colada upright as they float around the pool. Why does she do it?
“I can’t imagine doing anything better in life than feeding our future,” Gasiorowski explained in accepting her award.
Her objective as a noncommercial foodservice professional: “To move the children along until they’re being fed by a B&I [business-and-industry] account.”
Truly, the work of dyed-in-the-whites noncommercial professionals is a calling, not a job. “The only reason I got into health care [feeding] is my father had back surgery,” said Jennifer Leamons, executive chef at Stanly Regional Medical Center in Albemarle, N.C. “My father was on a restricted diet, and for some reason, they forgot to feed him for 15 hours. So I thought if I ever got a chance to give back, I would.”
That’s similar to the reason Darin Leonardson is in longterm-care feeding. At MenuDirections, FoodService Director offers a prize to whoever shares the best idea with the group, an extension of the magazine’s Steal This Idea feature. Leonardson, director of hospitality and dining for Golden Living in Plano, Texas, appended his submission with a remark about why he likes the business.
“When I was a chef at the Bellettini,” a world-famous luxury hotel in Florence, Italy, “I watched one of my line cooks walk a resident back to her room while she held on to his arm,” wrote Leonardson. “He did that every night and her smile was always so bright because of this. It made mine bright, too.”
A setting like that might seem farther away from health care feeding than the geographic distance would suggest, but not really, he explained. “In long term care, we have many opportunities to make people (our customers) feel good,” he wrote.