Jim Madden is a man known to live his life more on the traditional side – sans Instagram or even Facebook. His idea of connecting with his family means inviting everyone over to his house to enjoy a feast cooked by himself and his wife (both chefs). Jim speaks passionately about cooking—clearly believing that food facilitates a special connection between people, their health, and their overall success. He brings these beliefs to his work with Taher Inc., a food service management company that serves approximately 65,000 kids in Wisconsin every school day.
When I was 14, I started working at Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlour. A lot of my friends had gotten jobs there, and I was looking for a job, and they said it was really a fun place to work. I was there five years all together – from freshman year until the year after I graduated. I decided to go into a career in restaurants because I enjoyed the food business and my dad encouraged me…he said, “People are always going to eat, so no matter what you’ll be able to find something to keep you busy”. So, that’s what I did.
Some of the best memories I have in the food industry are being able to change what kids eat at school in a positive way…having a skeptical lunch lady at the beginning come back and say, “Boy, this is really good and the kids love it…I was wrong, and it’s really great you guys are here,” when you started off with them thinking this was going to be too much work and impossible to do. So, it’s fun to see you get results and have kids be happier with the lunch program Taher has created.
Taher is a food service management company. It’s privately held—owned by Bruce Taher—and has been in business since 1982. We provide food service management for schools, business and industry, a little bit of healthcare, some senior dining, Meals-on-Wheels programs and also do some vending business up in Minnesota. Bruce Taher also owns two restaurants.
I’m thinking it was 10-11 years ago, Bruce Taher started to recognize the problem with child obesity that was growing. We started by hiring a Director of Nutritional Wellness who had worked in a school district and had made some good changes on his own. He brought him and said, “We are going to embark on a goal, on a way of thinking to change and get ahead of the curve. We want to be on the cutting edge and change childhood obesity before it becomes a hot topic,” and it was really before it did. We broke into groups and decided “Food for Life” was the name. It has several meanings, but it is about the fact that we serve kids from schools to colleges to businesses and industries as adults to seniors after they are retired, so we are serving them for all of their stages in life. But it was also about the four main food groups. We came up with the idea behind it and the mission statement, which is to try to change people’s eating habits over time by starting to identify things that are bad.
The first thing we did was to set out to try to get rid of trans fats. We set a goal for a year. We were one of the first food service management companies to say we were trying to get trans fat free before it really became an issue. Now, it is a requirement. You cannot serve trans fats in the schools, but we did it probably 9 years ago.
It has evolved to other things. There are other standards such as how many processed foods can be on a menu. It was about the fruit and vegetable bars. Well, the middle schoolers would walk right by it for sure. What was rewarding to see was that when we started it, and we put a fruit and vegetable bar in, and it was self-service, the elementary school kids didn’t know how to use tongs or scoops. They still don’t—I mean when they are in kindergarten or first grade—but they learned to do it. You could see that we were making a difference. You will never get middle school kids to take fruits and vegetables. Over the course of time though, the elementary school kids who we were starting to serve it more grew up, they were used to the fruit and vegetable bar. Now, they go to middle school and they started eating fruits and vegetables. To watch them take the stuff they like and put it on their tray and to eat it makes you feel good.
Really, that was what it was about. We were educating kids from when they were first exposed to school lunch and kind of bringing them up and getting them to eat healthier. We saw that happen. That was exciting that we did that. It is still evolving. We have identified dyes that we are going to try to start eliminating. The local is a part of it as well. And real food—even more than local—it’s about real food . Less processed and fewer additives.
We try to do as much farm to school as we can. Where there are schools that we operate close to—whether it be a farm or a manufacturing plant that produces something that is local to that area—we try to utilize it wherever we can. If it is a cheese, and we are close to a cheese company, then we would try to bring that local cheese in from local sources. We use a local produce company where we can. We use purveyors for a lot of the ingredients except for bread, milk and produce which would be from separate companies that do that. We use a distributor that carries the products we need. If they do not, we ask them to bring it in for us. Most of the time, we can ask them to do that because we are big enough and we buy enough from them.
Twenty-one years I have been with Taher Inc. I started as a District Manager, and now my title is Regional Vice President of Operations, which means I oversee our accounts here in Wisconsin. There is another District Manager, two regional chefs and a few food service directors that operate each of the schools. I manage those food service directors and those operations to make sure we deliver what the customer is looking for. There are about 75 school districts that we serve, so we are feeding about 65,000 kids a day during the school year in Wisconsin.
The USDA provides money to the school lunch programs in order to offer kids the food. It has gotten much more complicated than it used to be, much more complex in terms of regulations…and in the last three years more than the first 19 that I worked there. The regulations are something that schools are trying to adapt to across the country. It is basically trying to get kids to eat healthier by concentrating on what they eat at school, which I think, in a lot of cases, has improved things, and in a lot of ways has made it more complicated and taken it the wrong way.
The guidelines are specific in terms of what nutrients the kids have to have in a week. You have to prove that you are following the guidelines. You have to be under a certain number of calories and sodium, and these subgroups of fruits and vegetables have to be met and so forth. So, it has to be all documented on production records to be able to prove, during an administrative review every three years, that we are in compliance with government regulations. That makes it difficult to prove if you make things from scratch.
We’ve done fruit and vegetables bars for 15 years, so it wasn’t new to us. What was new to us was the requirements that they have to take at least a half of a cup on their tray. One of the problems is that they take it—they don’t want it and they throw it away…so, there is more food wasted and our costs go up. So, districts are struggling with that and end up cutting corners in other ways to offset the waste. So, sometimes, they shoot themselves in the foot and find themselves going back to fewer choices so they don’t have as much waste because they (the kids) have to have it on their tray whether they are going to eat it or not. So, that is one of the things that we have seen that has changed.
When I started, we got more things that were made from scratch because our commodities that came from the government were whole turkeys and we would cook the whole turkeys, chill them down, pull off the meat, then turn it into chicken gravy… and make mashed potatoes from scratch. I mean all the kitchens had potato peelers. You’d put the potatoes in there and it would spin around and peel them for you and then you could turn it into mashed potatoes. Even at Ferrell’s, we used to make hamburgers from ground beef and pound them out every day and make them from scratch and so things evolved over time—even in school lunch in the past 21 years. So, we went from getting whole turkeys to getting chicken nuggets and mini corndogs that are already made-up, as far as the government subsidies go.
Over time, because of the availability of more processed food, because schools were trying to cut labor—the fact that people were getting used to eating more processed things—they started switching from whole turkeys to processed food. Food service directors were saying, you know, “We don’t have the time to make the turkeys. The kids don’t like them. They don’t eat them at home. They want chicken nuggets and chicken patties”. Now it’s really gone much more to processed food and less to making scratch food but it’s really about, what I think anyway, is what people eat at home and how everyone’s busy and how there’s more processed food available. I think fast food is what changed all of that. So in the last, I’d say 15 years, there’s been that switch to now more than half the commodities we get are processed and although I would hope that maybe it would start to switch back, it doesn’t seem like that’s happening because companies are coming up with more and more ways to do processed food.
Unfortunately, in this day and age…if they look at the menu, and there is not something on there that they are comfortable with, they are just going to say, “I don’t want to eat,” and that’s going to drive down participation and the revenue. Then it will be harder for us to balance the budget for the district and give the kids good food, because there will be less money there. So, we have to keep participation up. So, it is balance between offering what the kids want to eat, what the USDA says we can feed them, what is affordable, and then there are the parents who want to see enough healthy food. It really goes across the spectrum from “All I want is something my kids will eat,” to “I want all 100% organic healthy food made from scratch every day” – and everything in between. It sometimes is difficult to balance that. Different districts have more one way or the other, so we can steer in one direction or another. Waunakee is a district that is much more open to unique food and made-from-scratch foods at the middle and high school level for sure. I would say 50 percent of what we do as a company is made from scratch still because we try really hard to do that. At the elementary school though, kids still like chicken nuggets. They are still going to eat pizza. So, we still have to offer them or they won’t like the program as much.
I think USDA, the idea behind what the regulations tried to do and are trying to do are good intentions. So, I think just some adjustments in the USDA guidelines would help get things more on track and accomplish more than what we are doing over the last three years. They are listening, but slow to make changes at least at this point. They are trying to make some changes – one of them was that they drew a standard for age groups: 9-12 is a standard. 6-8 is a standard. K-6 is a standard. So, when you talk about 9-12, and you talk about a high school student, who is a football player and a senior getting the same amount of food as a gymnast freshman girl — that is difficult because you can’t give more to the senior football player. The freshman girl probably says, “this is plenty,” or “this is too much.” By putting that in a box like that, it makes it more difficult to please everybody because I think kids are different and they have different needs, more so than just that block of grades. So, if they would just change some of the requirements a little bit, it would make it a little less complicated.
I think for the most part, we have customers who are happy. I guess that after 21 years, they are happy with us or they wouldn’t stick around—they wouldn’t continue to hire us. I mean, 21 years ago, we had 8 school districts, and now we have over 70 in Wisconsin. So, that certainly says that a lot of school districts appreciate what we do. What it does for them is take the worry out of the food service program.
The thing about schools that people don’t realize is that, in most cases, the school feeds more kids than any restaurant in town. When you look at the amount of meals we serve a day in a school, we are the number one restaurant in town in terms of volume. But, it is usually part of their job—usually given to a business manager or a superintendent—who may or may not have any food service background at all, but yet they are trying to oversee a department that feeds the kids. So, they enjoy not having to worry about it, and if the kids are happy and their phone is not ringing with complaints and parents are content with what we are doing, all of that is good. I’ve heard school nurses say, “since you guys have been here, I see fewer and fewer kids that come to the nurse’s office because they are hungry, because you’ve been serving breakfast. Before, they would come to school without any food, and they would have a headache by the time they got to third hour.” You definitely see things that change. So, I think if we are successful, everybody is happy with what is going on and no one thinks too much about food service for the most part. That means we are taking care of things.
— Allison Sanders