//PICTURED ABOVE: SAGE features many fresh vegetables each day in their lunch line. Hockaday cooks around 300 pounds of produce daily in order to feed the students, faculty and staff.
Every morning at 9:15 a.m. the SAGE staff watches a video concerning both safety and procedures in the Hockaday kitchen. Recently, the videos have focused on washing and cleaning produce as an added precaution to ensure the safety of SAGE’s produce and to ensure the quality of food being served from the Hockaday kitchen.
Hockaday switched from in-house services to SAGE Dining Services during the summer of 2016, making it a fairly new addition to the School. Hockaday switched to SAGE because it was a more reliable and cost-effective.
Problems with SAGE have been few and far between until this year. However, over the course of September and October, Upper School students have raised concerns about SAGE food, as they have found a few distasteful items in their food.
Annie Zhao, a sophomore, found one of the unpleasant items that served as a catalysts for the increase in food concerns.
“I was pretty calm at first, but then I was quickly disturbed when I realized there was something in my food that did not belong,” Zhao said. “I do tend to check my food more as I have become more wary of the situation.”
Conversations about food concerns have circulated around Upper School, increasing students apprehensions about food consistency.
So, the question remains: why have these problems been occurring?
Jennifer Quick, SAGE’s regional manager of 15 years, opened and manages 54 of SAGE’s locations. Quick traveled to Hockaday from San Antonio and has been staying with the school for the past couple of weeks, overseeing that the correct procedures are being put in place to proactively avoid the problems.
“There was a single instance of a produce pest found in a student’s serving of vegetables after an unusually high rainy season that impacted one of our produce vendors,” Quick said.
Upon learning of this problems with their vendor, SAGE immediately launched an investigation related to the sourcing of the food. “As soon as the investigation found that the source was the produce vendor, the vendor was notified and subsequently issued warnings to all clients,” Quick said. SAGE has put their vendor on notice.
The vendor works with thousands of suppliers from local farms to import food items. All the suppliers are audited for food safety practices by a third party to ensure unbiased reporting.
The vendor works with several suppliers from local farms to import food items. All the suppliers are audited for food safety practices by a third party to ensure unbiased reporting.
The food vendor’s Vice President addressed the issue as a misfortune that has never happened before at their business.
“While maintaining these high standards, our farm-fresh produce is still a product of the environment and on rare occasions shows signs of its natural origin. It’s unfortunate when it happens, but we will continue to strive every day to give our customers the best quality produce nature has to offer,” the Vice President said.
“One hundred percent of produce deliveries to the vendor are inspected upon arrival. From time to time, insects have been found, and the loads are rejected immediately. I have never heard of anything like this. Fresh produce is inspected multiple times before it reaches The Hockaday School kitchen which demands the highest standards,” the Vice President said. “I’m truly sorry this happened, and hope that it doesn’t dissuade the school from enjoying the health benefits and wonderful flavors that fresh fruits and vegetables provide in the future.”
To fix the issue the vendor has contacted their grower. “[The vendor] has issued a formal complaint to the grower about this incident. Though a highly reputable grower, an investigation on its growing practices is currently underway,” the Vice President said.
Another issue of concern was a single incident with meat preparation.
Sage has detailed processes to ensure food is cooked at the appropriate temperature. Quick explained that the kitchen runs temp logs, schedules to moderate the temperature of all the food. Any meat in the oven must be rotated on a time schedule. If a tray has not reached the optimum temperature, it should be left in the ovens, and an unfortunate mistake in these logs is what led to the problematic meat reaching the food line.
“This was an isolated incident, that I do not anticipate will happen again,” Quick said.
After successfully notifying the vendor of issues with the food in the Hockaday kitchen, SAGE has taken even more steps to ensure the quality of the food is consistent.
Behind the scenes, the kitchen staff has been working rigorously to fix the current consistency problem. Many new initiatives have been put in place to prevent these problems from arising again.
First and foremost, every morning the SAGE staff watches a video. These videos are five minutes long with about five questions at the end that the staff answers. There are 30 to 40 modules of the videos that range from knife protocol to cleaning food.
Another challenge in the dining hall has been keeping pests from coming inside. Due to the proximity of the kitchen dumpsters to the loading dock, the SAGE staff has to pay even closer attention to keep these out.
“When you open the back door and the
food is being delivered, there is a chance that flies can come in,” Quick said. “We are working with Hockaday’s facilities to ask them to help us together accomplish getting rid of the pests because until the weather changes, we are going to be finding those.”
Hockaday has begun daily drain and surface treatments to stop the spread of the pests. The school is working to replace the air curtain to be fully functional at the loading docks entrance.
Another prominent solution to the issues is a new veggie wash, placed below the kitchen sinks, that the SAGE staff is using as an added precaution for all vegetables.
“We brought in the veggie wash, to make sure anything else that is hiding in the produce gets washed a second time,” Quick said. “This is not something that is done in every location, but we’re doing it here because we want to add in an additional step to make sure we’re being safe.”
SAGE uses only fresh products, rather than the easier route, frozen products. When the vegetables are brought in from the vendor, there is always a chance that items could be hidden in the leaves.
SAGE has taken all of the issues that have arisen with utmost urgency. “We have provided guidance for employees related to that issue, and we had a full team meeting right after it happened, so I have been here to make sure that what we are doing is absolutely putting good systems in place,” Quick said.
“Students can expect a higher level of vigilance with respect to how the food is being prepared and more consistent systems and schedules. Not only that, but our awareness level is significantly higher because of the issues,” Quick said.
The SAGE staff is being trained to handle these consistency issues more adequately.
SAGE has also begun creating more specific departments in the kitchen, so that the same staff members are managing and taking ownership of the food they need and what they are making.
Additionally, changes are being put in place relating to SAGE and the kitchen. Beginning this fall, SAGE will host quarterly advisory meetings open to all community members. Discussion will include any current buzz as well planned improvements for service and selection. Quick and the SAGE management team are using these problems as an opportunity to improve SAGE’s service to Hockaday as a whole.
“I’m going to use this not just as an opportunity to actually train for safety, but also I would like to use this as an opportunity for us to gain some menu writing feedback for you so what we’re making is what you want to be eating,” Quick said.
If students have questions or concerns related to the food, SAGE invites them to visit the kitchen. SAGE’s “open kitchen policy” allows students to see firsthand the work being done to improve their food. “If there is a group of concerned students, and that relates to whether they’re eating or not, that’s important to us, and I’m happy to speak with the students so they know the food is safe,” Quick said.
Despite the SAGE food issues, the people in Biggs Dining Hall have been working hard to make sure nothing of this nature ever happens again.
“There’s a really great group of people that are cooking back there and preparing your food and they absolutely took it to hearts when they heard about the issues. They were devastated,” Quick said. “There was a level of seriousness and quiet understanding that this cannot happen again.”
Story by Ava Berger, Staff Writer
Photo by Sawyer Bannister