Successful foodservice operators often come to their careers from diverse backgrounds. Lyman Graham, who oversees school nutrition for three districts spread across New Mexico, certainly fits that description with a wide-ranging and fascinating resume that includes stints (in no particular order) as a ranch hand, on an oil field, in a tractor supply store, as a school custodian, as a Christian TV program host and as a restaurateur.
But it isn't that colorful curriculum vitae but his accomplishments in upgrading the dining programs, solidifying the financials and significantly boosting participation rates in the districts where he oversees foodservice operations that earned him the 2012 Silver Plate Award in the K-12 Schools category.
Graham fell into the school foodservice directorship in spite of himself when an officious (and astute) friend “went behind my back” to recommend him for the job heading the nutrition program for Dexter Consolidated Schools, a small district in the Southern part of the state. Apparently, the friend knew about Graham's foodservice background and his knack for coaxing success out of any enterprise he put his mind to.
Score one for the friend. Under Graham's direction, Dexter's budget has tripled, from around $236,000 to $700,000, as he expanded participation and reduced food costs by maximizing the use of government commodities in mostly scratch-cooked menus that he developed to appeal to kids while meeting federal nutrition guidelines.
His performance at Dexter drew the notice of other districts. Soon, he was managing nutrition programs for three separate districts: Dexter, Carlsbad Municipal Schools and Roswell ISD.
In each case, the result was the same: an impressive turnaround in a financially ailing program effected by Graham's devotion, his attention to controlling costs without sacrificing quality and his commercial operator's instinct for finding product that pleases the customers.
Carlsbad had run up a $300,000 program deficit before Graham came on board. Seven years later, it boasted a $550,000 positive balance and had grown its annual budget from $2.1 million to $3.9 million. The story was the same at Roswell, where a $430,000 initial program deficit morphed into a $1.5 million surplus after nine years under Graham's leadership.
Participation Growth a Key Factor
The key to the better financials was a dramatic improvement in participation: breakfast counts were in the 15% to 35% range before Graham took over and now average 70% (some are as high as 95%) among the three he runs. Lunch went from between 35% and 41% to an average of 73%.
His initiatives included adding salad bars, offering breakfast in the classroom and at morning breaks and increasing the scratch cooking component of production to where about 60% of the meals are made this way by personnel who had been taught the necessary skills.
He also increased revenues by initiating catering services out of the school kitchens to the point where the superintendent of the district, when asked for a caterer recommendation by a visiting university training workshop replied, “Call Lyman Graham — he runs the best restaurant in town!”
The town's best restaurateur got his start cooking while standing on a jerry-rigged milk carton in the family kitchen. “I learned to cook at an early age because my mother was not well, so if we were going to have meals at home it was up to me to fix them,” Graham recalls. “My dad fixed a kind of milk box for me to stand on so I could see over the stove and not burn my face.” (One shudders to imagine what a family services social worker would think of that today…).
“I was raised on a ranch some 50 miles east of Roswell and I never dreamed I'd be anything but a rancher,” he says. “But as the years went by it became obvious that I'd have to make a living doing something else, so I bought a restaurant, ran it for about four years and made a success of it, then sold it for a good profit.”
He then embarked on a string of odd jobs that included the oil field, the tractor store and the TV station, which he left only because it was relocating to Texas and he didn't want to go. He also bought, turned around and sold another restaurant for a profit (“I seem to have a knack for that,” he says modestly).
It was at that point that his friend, who managed maintenance at Dexter Schools, asked him to help out. “It was actually custodial work and during breaks I would go help out the ladies in the kitchen,” he says. Soon afterwards, the foodservice director retired and Graham was asked to succeed her.
Graham admits he was conflicted. “When you get out of foodservice as I did when I sold my last restaurant, you swear you'll never do it again,” he says. “But in truth, it's kind of in your blood.”
Spreading the Word
Today, he serves as a kind of evangelist for school nutrition both to his peers and to the larger community. After his breakfast program grew to be so successful, the Student Nutrition Bureau of the New Mexico Public Education Dept. asked him to present to school nutrition personnel across the state about how they can emulate his results.
He also served as a technical advisor to the effort to allow breakfast to be served during instructional time (“Breakfast After the Bell”), and he participated in a training video on how to implement such a program that was distributed to schools across the country.
He also served as a public spokesman for New Mexico's participation in the USDA Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Program as a pilot state and recently served on a National Academy of Sciences panel studying a potential Provision 4 to the School Lunch Act.
He has also served the school nutrition community in his state as president (2004-05) and three-term treasurer of the New Mexico School Nutrition Association. For the national SNA, he has served on a number of committees and task forces, including the Public Policy & Legislative Committee for the past six years.
At the most recent SNA Legislative Action Conference, he was recognized as the association's 2011 Director of the Year for his accomplishments and contributions.
WHAT'S ON GRAHAM'S PLATE
Sites: 38 schools in three districts in southeastern New Mexico
Total Annual Sales: $8.9 million
Total Annual Budget: $9.4 million
Staff: 124 FT, 36 PT