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Kern Halls

Stories from the front lines: A school food service leader on serving communities, being Black and living in America

Kern Halls, chief innovator at Ingenious Culinary Concepts shares his story, his ‘why’ and gives us his take on racial inequality in the midst of a global crisis in a time of reckoning.

School food service consultant Kern Halls’ company, Ingenious Culinary Concepts, has pivoted during the pandemic to help Orange County (Fla.) Public Schools (OCPS) serve emergency meals from two feeding sites. During this chaotic time, Halls hasn’t had a chance to take a break, but “it’s worth it,” he says.

Halls’ “why” is personal, and “this time it’s bigger than me,” he says. “It’s about community and supporting others.”

“Above all else, I was a free lunch student,” Halls says. “Had the pandemic occurred 30 years ago, my family could have been one of the families who depend on these meals. So I take what I’m doing personally. We ensure we give the families who depend on these meals the best products and services we can provide.”

Here’s Halls’ story as told to Tara Fitzpatrick on June 21, 2020.

“We have been in the general food and beverage industry for 20-plus years, and working in school foodservice (specifically for over 15 years), we’ve had the pleasure of working with great individuals in the K-12 industry to ensure students have the best experience possible when served in school cafeterias.

“Like everyone else, we were just plugging along, helping school districts and manufacturers, until COVID-19 hit. The pandemic altered the way everyone conducted business, including Ingenious Culinary Concepts.

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“We immediately started contacting our clients to check on them and offer our assistance. A few months before COVID’s impact, our company had recently signed a contract to provide concession services for two Orlando sporting arenas. As a result of the pandemic, those services were suspended until further notice. Our company always tries to pivot and make adjustments in times like these. Readjusting is essential.

“One example included immediately becoming an approved vendor to assist Orange County (Fla.) Public Schools (OCPS) with feeding students breakfast and lunch in a manner that has not been done before. We quickly contacted our connections and industry comrades and were operating for emergency student feeding in less than two weeks.

“We currently feed about 800 to 1,000 students from two feeding sites. I can honestly tell you that I have not had a chance to come up for air, but it has been worth it! We employ approximately 16 individuals. These are individuals who might otherwise be unemployed. Being in the position to employ others is one of my greatest motivations to keep pressing on.

“For the upcoming school year, a few different setups will include meals in the classroom, drive-thru at schools (if all the students do not come back) and/or direct delivery to students’ homes. Once the funding is in place, piloting these various alternatives can be further explored. The biggest challenge involves the process districts implement to bring students back safely. Currently, I don’t have adequate details to make the best educated guess of what can and would work. I don’t have answers, just a few suggestions.

“In the coming months, K-12 may want to consider partnering with industry, administrators, health officials, students, consultants and the School Nutrition Association to ensure we have everyone’s input on how we are going to execute ‘the new normal.’ Feeding students in a safe and timely manner will be the biggest concern.

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“The silver lining in this current climate is that we are all in this together. I love the way people have adapted and made sure students are getting fed (by any means necessary). I will go out on a limb and say that most staff who work in the kitchen won’t feel their job is difficult when everything returns to normal.

“As a leader who happens to be Black and a veteran, many people do not get a chance to really hear your story. Sometimes I deliver keynote addresses focused on making the audience better at what they do. However, I have so many other stories that may surprise some… but I will share one with you.

“First, I would like to say that the United States of America is a great country filled with opportunity...if you want to seek those opportunities out. Unfortunately, there are some people in the country and world who do not appreciate diversity.

“One of my stories involves riding my motorcycle back to my friend’s house (where I stored it). I heard a siren behind me and slowed down. Since I was doing the speed limit, I was able to slowly pull over. The police officer pulled the front of his patrol car within inches of my leg. It was so close that my hand touched the car’s hood to catch my balance. As a result, I could not put the kickstand of my motorcycle down.

“The police officer got out of the car and pointed his gun at my head. I can tell you this for certain, my entire life flashed before my eyes. He ordered me to get off my bike and he proceeded to spew profanity at me and stated, ‘You are selling drugs.’ The officer then searched me and put me in the back of the police car.

“At this same time, a friend happened to drive by and asked if everything was alright. The police officer told her to ‘get out of here’ or she would go to jail also. I told her to leave and that I would be OK. While I was in the back of the car, which seemed like an eternity the police officer was searching the area with his flashlight for drugs. At this point I was a little nervous because I didn’t want him to plant any drugs on me.

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“He went back into the car and proceeded with his paperwork. I didn't know if I was going to jail or getting a ticket. I proceeded to tell him again that I was just dropping my bike off and going to get my car. His reply, ‘You are a liar.’ I just stayed quiet at that point. Then he asked me for my address. I wasn’t in handcuffs, so I reached into my front right pocket and handed him my military ID, which had my duty station address.

“Needleless to say, his facial expression displayed embarrassment and he handed my military ID back to me and with his head down and stated, ‘You can go.’ No ticket, no apology. This is just one of many similar instances of less than ideal encounters I’ve had with police officers over the years.

“As a father of two Black young men (ages 20, and 15) I pray that they don’t have to go through the situations I have experienced (in the past) and still experience today.

“‘Kern’ doesn’t always wear suits and ties. When I am off from work or not at church, 90% of the time you’ll find me in athletic gear because I work out five days a week. My wife is so nervous that sometimes she stays on the phone with me to make sure I get into my hotel room safe (when I’m on the road working in certain parts of the country).

“Unfortunately, now that my 20-year-old son works as a pharmacy technician at night, he calls us, and we stay on the phone until he gets home from work. He is in college to become a pharmacist, but from mere physical appearance, most people would not know that.

“No one knows from the outside looking in that I have won numerous noteworthy awards and have been to the White House (more than once) for efforts related to my profession. As a whole, we have to start a dialogue and continue the work necessary to understand our similarities and differences. You would be amazed that I love Guns and Roses as well as Rhythm and Blues.”

Contact Tara at [email protected].

Follow her on Twitter @Tara_Fitzie.

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