Davis, a university town of 65,000 in the Sacramento Valley, is ahead of the school lunch curve — it passed the first in the nation parcel tax with a portion devoted to purchasing fresh, local food for school lunch. It is here we started our blog over 2 years ago– May 23, 2012. Today, nearly 100 interviews later, we circle back to Davis Joint Unified School District to check in on two culinary superstars in school lunch, starting first with Director, Student Nutrition Services, Chef Dominic Machi.
His first anniversary approaching, we caught up with him to see what he’s accomplished, running the school meal program at Davis, a district of about 8,500 students with an average free and reduced percentage of 20-21. The changes he has introduced to the program are all about increasing food quality and flavor through house-made product, while increasing the bottom line. The chef knows his business.
“Dom”, as he is called, had goals set out for him by the district – get participation up and cost down. His background was perfect. He grew up in a restaurant family in San Francisco and worked in butcher shops, got degrees in both hotel-restaurant and dietetics, worked in 4- star restaurants and directed several large school district food service operations. In those districts, he opened a 30,000 square foot kitchen and introduced scratch cooking. He knew that to achieve the district’s goals he had to market the lunches, resource products directly and focus on quality while keeping costs down. Part of marketing the lunches was serving the school board what the kids were eating (see menu left.)
“This is a business model I figured out in Newark [Unified School District in California where Dom also served as Director, School Food Service.] “To keep the cost of goods down, you have to use USDA Commodity proteins (like a USDA 8-way cut chicken) and you have to cook. Everything we do here is done right,” he says. “It all tastes like my mother made it.”
His personal goal is 85% house-made product.
In his chef’s whites, he’s as comfortable guiding through his kitchen a tour of USDA officials from Washington, D.C. who are learning the latest about school food as he is talking with farmers and purveyors about the products he wants. (Photo left is Dom with Anne Alonzo, Administrator for the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, during her 2013 Davis tour.) He works equally well with his staff, his administration, and his parent and community groups represented by Davis Farm to School, the now 14 year old “school lunch booster club” program. Its parent group, Yolo Farm to Fork, is active with Dom in his purchase of produce grown at Harper Junior High School, such as tomatoes for marinara sauce, and is transporting that model to the other four school districts in Yolo County.
Davis, located in the agriculturally rich Yolo County across the river from Sacramento, participates as one of the five school districts in a Specialty Crop farm-to- school grant from the California Department of Food and Agriculture, administered through the Yolo County Department of Agriculture under Commissioner John Young. In June, the county was ranked “30th healthiest county for kids in the nation” by U.S. News in June. At an April meeting of the school districts, whose focus is on increasing the use of local fruits and vegetables in their school meals program, Dom described his house-made product strategy.
Dom, a former Executive Chef at Bon Appétit, has a veritable house-made line. Entrée items include BBQ Pulled Pork Sandwich, Macaroni and Cheese (yes, his own cheese sauce), Mandarin Chicken over Steamed Brown Rice, Cheese and Bean Burrito, and even a grilled cheese sandwich that’s not soggy. These are labeled on the lunch menu as house-made.
He’s introduced a line of house-made sauces including Alfredo and another line of dressings which include Ranch, Caesar, and a French Vinaigrette Salad. “My pizza sales have tripled,” he said. “The whole wheat crust was a challenge for us [to meet new USDA standards], but I found a wholesale bakery in Napa to make the rounds for us.” He adds his own house-made marinara sauce and toppings.
Dom is in partnership with his local university, the University of California Davis, to start a taste-testing program for other new house-made and flavor profile products he’s introducing. The cousous pictured left has already been introduced successfully as a part of increasing whole grains to meet the new USDA meal pattern. He has prioritized making sure kids don’t go hungry in the summer, starting a summer food program. The district began offering free lunches at two school sites in June and will run the program through August.
We think Dom has introduced just the right changes to keep the Davis School Meal Program growing in both student and community participation.