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Atlanta native Desmond Fannin has traveled the globe perfecting his culinary talents, preparing meals for luminaries including former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. Fannin also was handpicked by his current employer, food management company Sodexo, to be only one of two American chefs to oversee meals during the 2007 Rugby World Cup in Paris. These days, he’s back in his hometown, serving as the executive chef for Atlanta Public Schools. Fannin agreed to take part in a quick Q&A with The Inside Track to share how he’s giving his district a healthy menu revamp.
As the district executive chef for Atlanta Public Schools (APS), you are charged with overseeing the meals that thousands of students eat each day. How do you balance the need to feed all those students while also ensuring what they are eating is good for them?
It sounds a bit cliché, but it truly is a team effort. We are committed to Atlanta Public Schools’ mission of “Serving Healthy Meals for Student Success.” In that everyone has a role. Atlanta Public Schools bases the menu on the guidelines of the Healthier US Schools Challenge and the system maintains high standards of its own. Our part is to carry out those goals every day. Everyone works together to achieve that balance.
We hear you have brought some exciting changes to APS school meals. What are some of the things you have done, and what other changes are you planning to implement?
It is a pleasure to serve as the District Executive Chef for the meal operations at Atlanta Public Schools. In support of the Atlanta Public Schools Wellness Policy, we have broadened the menu through the use of more whole grains in pastas, pizza crusts and breads and increased locally grown produce to 40 percent of the total monthly expenditure of fruits and vegetables. Additionally, a “Locally Grown Fresh Pick of the Month” program has been started to highlight local farmers.
What do you think are the biggest stereotypes that people have when it comes to school meals?
There are a few I think of instantly. It is always assumed that school meals cannot be healthy. Often time, people bash school food off of hearsay only. Many of the meals that are served are more nutritionally sound than what many students are bringing from home. Another is that the people serving the students don’t care. I think cafeteria managers have a terrible reputation that they did not earn. If people could really see how hard these individuals work to not only feed the students, but educate them on nutrition and brighten their day, I think they would have a different opinion. School food can be healthy and the students can make healthy choices.
You’ve prepared meals for a number of famous people, from former presidents such as Bill Clinton to legendary NBA star Magic Johnson and even Oprah Winfrey. Do you have a favorite celebrity you’ve cooked for, or a favorite story from over the years?
Well, most of the time when you cook for celebrities, they may not even know you cooked for them as they are part of a larger group. You really don’t know if they actually ate the meal or if they liked it. The most fun I have personally, is cooking for students — little celebrities — during our Fine Dining/Etiquette Program. My favorite notable celebrity would be [hip hop mogul] Russell Simmons. I actually cooked the meal right in front of him. It was only for one day, but I felt like I was cooking for an uncle or family member. He was extremely humble and gracious — and he cleaned his plate! Representing Sodexo in Paris for the meal preparation for the 2007 Rugby World Cup would be my favorite international story.
What was your favorite dish growing up? What’s your favorite meal now?
Growing up, I loved spaghetti with meat sauce and Chinese food. Today, I love…. spaghetti with turkey meat sauce and, you guessed it, Chinese food. I can go for a good gyro wrap as well. Other than those items, anything my wife whips up is always good.