One challenge directors often lament is that administrators don’t understand the challenges foodservice programs face. So many directors spend a good amount of time educating their administrators—but in one district that wasn’t the case.
Having worked as an executive at KIPP charter schools, Jamal McCall saw firsthand how hard it is for small schools to get high-quality food at affordable prices. Last summer, McCall started Elite Group Solutions to try to tackle this persistent issue, and although he’s just getting started, he has high hopes.
McCall comes to his new venture with years of experience in charter schools. He has worked as a principle, vice principle and a teacher. He has run school operations and athletics programs. He spent a majority of his 15 years with KIPP in Memphis, growing the education system there from one to nine schools.
He began his time with KIPP in Atlanta as a co-founding staff member when the school was just 90 fifth-graders. That's when his education on foodservice began.
“All the major foodservice companies weren't interested in providing meals to us,” McCall recalls. He knew the meals he would be serving might be the primary source of nutrition for these inner-city students and he struggled to find a food management company that was willing to work with such a small school and within their budget. ”I want them to have just as much quality meals as anyone else,” he says.
School meals were critical to McCall as a child, growing up in Washington, DC. “We grew up pretty poor so school meals were vital to me every day," McCall says. "I'd look forward to coming to school every day and eating breakfast and lunch and whatever meal I'd get. It was a vital part of my mom being able to raise us.”
At the beginning of the school year, McCall had a bit of a homecoming when he began working with the Cesar Chavez Schools, a charter school group with five schools on three campuses in Washington, DC. These charter schools are Elite Group Solutions first client.
“Being from DC and being able to come back to DC to serve students in neighborhoods that I'm familiar with, that was definitely a plus for me,” he says.
Cesar Chavez Schools do not have on-site kitchens, so Elite delivers 1,500 meals a day all cooked at Union Kitchen, a DC-based food incubator.
McCall focuses on fresh ingredients and approachable dishes. For breakfast, yogurt, granola and fresh blueberries have been popular with the students. And for lunch, teriyaki chicken and broccoli over brown rice and baked salmon and roasted potatoes have been a hit.
McCall worked with chefs, students and a nutritionist, as well as NutriKids Mosaic Menu software, to create the menus. “This software gives us menu ideas and allows us to ensure we are creating menus in compliance with USDA guidelines,” he adds.
McCall was already familiar with many of the national food distributors thanks to his work at KIPP, so finding food for Cesar Chavez Schools meals was simple, he says. “I shared my ideas of what types of food items I wanted to serve. Mainly focusing on who could provide the healthiest options at the best price.”
In addition to creating the dishes, McCall would like to be the one distributing the food and offering janitorial services to schools. McCall envisions Elite Group Solutions as a one-stop shop for school needs. He imagines that working with one company that can provide the food, manage the dining program and clean up after the meals will be beneficial to schools—and to their budgets.
McCall is starting off in a tricky school system. The DC Public Schools’ lunch program has been plagued with problems including a whistleblower lawsuit and disputed contracts. But McCall says he is only marginally aware of the problems; he's been too busy getting to work.
He is aware of the success that other vendors like Revolution Foods and DC Central Kitchen have had working with schools. He considers himself the “new kid” and has a lot to learn from these established food management companies.
“I think we all have the same mission of just trying to get healthy meals in front of every child, each day,” he says. “I think there's such a huge void to fill that there's enough room for all of us to exist.”