Passion for sustainability drives Ryan Harb

Ryan Harb is the new food service director for the district.Photo: Audrey Bird

The Amherst district has a new food service director and he has a big vision: to get “good food on people’s plates every day.”

Ryan Harb started at UMass in 2004 as a business student who wanted to make a positive impact, and while there, he developed a passion for sustainability. “Food has such an impact on our everyday lives,” said Mr. Harb.

That passion has informed his aim in the district: to utilize local produce and to make fresh and healthy meals which fit within the restrictions of the food service program. So far, four local businesses have been added to the food system and new meals are being added to the menu each month.

Mr. Harb is excited by the willingness of the ARPS community to change, though he noted that it “takes time in the food service world.”

Purchasing laws and paperwork are necessary but they slow the process down, he said. Mr. Harb believes that it is important to celebrate the small victories and to keep on going.

This year ARPS has the opportunity to work with Project Bread, a nonprofit started 30 years ago. Project Bread partners with schools throughout the commonwealth to alleviate hunger issues.

This project funds the position of Chef Sam, a visiting cook who has been spicing up the lunch room. “I don’t work for the school system. I work for [Project Bread]. It’s committed to end hunger in the commonwealth,” said Chef Sam. Chef Sam makes meals for students to sample on Tuesdays. He will be at ARHS and ARMS until mid-November.

Menu changes are part of Mr. Harb and Sam’s partnership. Information collected from surveys Chef Sam and his team are running will help decide what meals could be added to the rotation. Mr. Harb hopes to empower the staff with recipes “they feel passionate about and that showcase their abilities.”

Food Services works within a tight budget, using ingredients that they can order easily and in bulk. Mr. Harb compared it to the show Chopped. For instance, beans may be the main ingredient, when readily available. One of the cooks at Crocker Farm put her skills to the test and made “a bean, corn, and cilantro salad” which Mr. Harb said was great.

With revamped menus and quality ingredients, Mr. Harb hopes to “take the stigma away from school lunch.” He finds it really important that the food program be good quality because many students depend on free and reduced lunch for their nourishment.

Operating behind the scenes in an administrator role, Mr. Harb depends on his team. “It will take a whole village to make our food service one of the best,” he said. Feedback is another crucial step to the process. Surveys students fill out keep the Food Services team in the loop, so the system can be bettered.

This year, four to five new staff members were added to the food service team. Mr. Harb is optimistic about the changes these new people will bring to the system.

“I can help at the top level but I need people [on the ground] who go the extra mile,” he said.

Mr. Harb acknowledged that this year is only year one of a multi-year transition. But he is excited to continue “changing the system.”