Interviewee: Dean Hamburg
Date: September 28, 2011
Location: National Food Service Management Institute
Description: Dean Hamburg is a school foodservice director in Alaska.
Jeffrey Boyce: I’m Jeffrey Boyce and it is September 28, 2011. I’m here in Oxford, Mississippi, at the National Food Service Management Institute, and I’m talking today with Dean Hamburg. Welcome Dean, and thanks for taking the time to talk with me today.
Dean Hamburg: Thank you for inviting me for this discussion. Thank you, Jeffrey.
JB: Could we begin by you telling me a little bit about yourself, where you were born and where you grew up?
DH: I was born in Mount Vernon, Washington state, in 1954, and was raised there, as well as some years in Alaska as a child; graduated from high school in 1973 and went on with life from there.
JB: What’s your earliest recollection of child nutrition programs? Did you have breakfast or lunch programs when you were going to school?
DH: My first recollection of school lunch was my experience at Creekside Park Elementary School in Anchorage, Alaska, where I remember fish sticks being my favorite day, and just the marvel of seeing all the places filled on my lunch tray as I went down through the line, and enjoying lunch with my friends in class.
JB: Would this have been before Offer vs. Serve, so you just had a strict menu, not choices?
DH: Yes. Looking back I believe that is [correct].
JB: What about your educational background – did you attend schools in Alaska all the time?
DH: Elementary school some in Alaska, some in the state of Washington – I graduated from high school following a return to Mount Vernon, Washington. From there, right out of high school, I enlisted in the United States Navy, signed aboard as a cook and baker, and spent four years as a cook and baker aboard a Fast Attack submarine in the Atlantic.
JB: That must have been interesting.
DH: In some aspects that’s where I feel like I really grew up, in meeting that responsibility with two other cook/baker partners in providing eighty meals every six hours in a submarine environment, in the Arctic as well as other warmer parts of the world.
JB: Were most things on the submarine frozen, or would they be freeze-dried? How did that work on a submarine?
DH: Storage on a submarine, thank you for asking, yes we had some frozen space for meals, but storage also meant storing things right literally on the deck, and doing the menu according to what was on top and most available; eggs crammed in the torpedo room, canned goods crammed in every possible space; dehydrated pork chops, dehydrated green beans, you name it – everything was dedicated to saving space for food service.
JB: How long would you be out at a time before you were able to restock?
DH: We were responsible to have provisions aboard for a 90-day tour and occasionally reached those limits, but generally three to four weeks at a stretch.
JB: And how long were you in the Navy?
DH: I did four years active with a five year reserve duty afterwards.
JB: And so how did you get from there into child nutrition?
DH: Following an honorable discharge from the submarine service, Navy, I took advantage of the GI Bill and attended Washington State University and was awarded a Bachelor of Arts in Hotel and Restaurant Administration. So with academics completed commenced on with Westin Hotels and Marriott Hotels following graduation from the schools.
JB: And what were you doing for them?
DH: Rooms and food service management with Marriott Hotels in New Orleans, and Los Angeles, Iowa, and other parts of the country.
JB: So from there was there someone who directed you into child nutrition, or how did you become involved?
DH: Enjoying hotel and restaurant administration life with hotel companies was terrific, but there was a point where a friend shared an opportunity for employment with a school district school meal program. I looked at it, became interested, and took advantage of the opportunity as a school meal director in a small school district in Blaine, Washington, on the border across from Vancouver, British Columbia.
JB: What was that like? Tell me about the first experience.
DH: Well, the first experience was intimidating in that the responsibility to provide food-safe, appropriate meals [to] critical customers, that children are, was at first a little overwhelming, but then once it sorted out what a successful experience can be for a student in the school meal line, and developed the appropriate staff to support that, it became a real joy.
JB: Have you had any mentors along the way that sort of helped you develop in your profession?
DH: Yes, in the state of Washington a woman named Ruth Ann Bennett was a state agency encouragement in helping me with the administrative tools. Other school meal directors in the state of Washington – I think about a woman named Debbie Webber, or SNA’s own Gaye Lynn MacDonald, were encouragements to me while taking on a larger school district in Mount Vernon, Washington. From there I was attending an LAC meeting [Legislative Action Conference], obviously in D.C., and I was at a table with a state agency member, Molly Wheeler, at that time with the Alaska state agency, and over salad at LAC she mentioned an opportunity for a district directorship in the state of Alaska, which filled my head with all those opportunities to return to Alaska, that put my wife somewhat into shellshock, but off we went in 2003 for my taking on responsibilities as the school meal director for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.
JB: How big an area is that?
DH: The district itself is 28,000 square miles, about the size of West Virginia for one school district – two national parks, four volcanoes, a gazillion glaciers, with an enrollment of 9,000 children –
DH: – with K-12 schools with 40 students, with some schools on actual roads, with other schools in isolated communities where the only access is by boat or plane.
JB: One of my questions was ‘Is there anything unique about your state?’, but I think you could go on and on. I think there’s a lot of wildlife there too.
DH: Yes. It becomes a typical day in school meal programs all across Alaska to deal with logistics for support, facility for the students, with all those variables – extreme cold, carnivores out and about in the form of bears, moose at bus stops that can be a threat to kids, so just getting to school and the breakfast line can be the first challenge.
JB: How do you supply the schools that are so remote?
DH: Generally by aircraft supply and/or small boat, for those communities that are on a waterway, whether it’s the Yukon River or somewhere along the 33,000 miles of coastline that exists in Alaska. Interior communities rely on aircraft. When the airstrip’s in good shape the food shows up and coordinated with meeting the pilot on the airstrip, gather the goods on a trailer attached to a snow machine and off you go to the school.
JB: Do you feel like your educational background helped prepare you for this career?
DH: Yes. Whether it’s the education provided with work ethic in the service, as well as academics at Washington State University, those things have helped me. I have a grasp of food safety and financial responsibilities. An extremely important key to any success I’ve enjoyed is the School Nutrition Association, the networking and the real world tools for success that come through participation of the School Nutrition Association.
JB: Do you have a state association in Alaska?
DH: Yes we do. We have the Alaska School Nutrition Association as a subset to the national group. I served as past president as well currently as Public Policy and Legislative Chair for AKSNA, Alaska School Nutrition Association. Our association has challenges unique to all that takes place in taking care of children in the half a million square miles that is Alaska, with schools that struggle to have appropriate water supply, communities that have difficulty housing their children, school districts in Alaska that seldom through the year receive fresh fruits and produce, schools that are dependent on that last barge that arrives in September or October before freeze-up.
JB: So you really have to plan ahead.
DH: Yes, you very much have to plan ahead. I am fortunate that my team serves in a district that is on the road system. Only about a third of Alaska geographically is accessed by roads. There is so much of Alaska that is not attached to a real live road, pavement or gravel. So we work with our state agency and state legislature as well as with our Congressional representation to maintain those supports that come from the USDA and from the federal government in other ways to maintain dignified and appropriate USDA school breakfast and lunch programs across Alaska.
JB: What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen over the years in the child nutrition profession?
DH: Boy – the appropriate addressing of nutritional needs for students in limiting fats, limiting sodium, increasing the provision of whole grains, encouraging when available the provision of fresh fruits and vegetables. That’s been a very positive thing to see. And the provision of solid food safety training that provides that guarantee to the students that they’re receiving a food safe and nutrient sound school meal.
JB: I would guess that fresh fruits and vegetables can be a real challenge in Alaska in the winter.
DH: Yes indeed, and currently in my school district we have thirteen sites taking advantage of the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Snack Program, and it is very much welcomed by every school that is able to participate in that provision. Other changes regarding your question ‘What changes have you seen?,’ with the increasing amount of students in Alaska as well as the rest of the country that qualify for free and reduced-price meals we see that segment of students more regularly participating, as well as students who don’t qualify for free or reduced-price meals increasingly seeing the validity of school meals and taking advantage of it, that might not have seen this as an option five or six years ago. That’s one of the changes I’ve seen in the National School Lunch Program.
JB: Do you do any scratch cooking in your district?
DH: Characterizing what is scratch cooking we do less and less of our own baking. The provision of USDA both through commodities and manufacturers responding to need have been remarkably successful in providing appropriate foods that currently really minimizes scratch cooking. In my district as well as most districts in Alaska we don’t traffic with too much raw foods, raw meats; certainly not raw poultry, almost no raw ground beef, no raw pork. The transportation challenge in moving raw meats around in an age where food safety issues associated with raw meats is so serious that we pretty much depend on all our products arriving pre-cooked, whether that’s the hamburger patty or beef crumbles, or other aspects that might lead to scratch cooking. Our limit to use scratch cooking is really driven by the successful provision of USDA commodities that take care of a lot of that task before it arrives in the school.
JB: What would you say has been your most significant contribution to the field so far?
DH: Boy – locally in my school district is I have a passion for school breakfast. I arrived into my current district on the Kenai Peninsula in 2003, where there was little or no participation in the National School Breakfast Program. In chatting it up with teachers, principals, and students, parent groups, it became apparent there was a wide open hope and expectation that appropriate school breakfast programs would be established across the Kenai Peninsula. Matching with my enthusiasm for that we now have thirty National School Breakfast Programs operating at the thirty-four sites where we have children participating in the National School Lunch Program. And so now we’re at a point where you were ever to consider not having those breakfast programs in those schools it would just be unthinkable. I’d like to think that myself, and others in the state of Alaska have gained that appetite for school breakfast for kids. It’s just a rewarding experience to witness the service of breakfast at large and small schools – students in the north that may come from home where mom and dad are both up and off to work at five-thirty in the morning – maybe they provided some sort of breakfast before they left for their hard work day, but a breakfast at home at six-thirty doesn’t cut it until noon lunch, and so more and more we’re having students in Alaska, on the Kenai, take advantage of school breakfast, with siblings helping their siblings at the start of the day – and teachers recognizing that a student is much better prepared for a successful morning in the classroom, having received a school breakfast in Alaska.
JB: With the geographical challenges I’m guessing each school has the have its own kitchen – there’s no centralized kitchen or anything like that in Alaska.
DH: Our major city, Anchorage, Alaska, serves half the meals in the state. Half the population in Alaska resides in the community that is Anchorage, Alaska. They have a very successful central kitchen. In addition to that the two communities – Fairbanks, Alaska, has a successful central kitchen operation actually housed out of the United States Army base there in Fairbanks, Alaska. The Matanuska-Susitna Valley School District near Anchorage also has an established central kitchen. Those three communities have a more concentrated access so logistically it can work for them. The rest of the state of Alaska is so much spread out that the central kitchen transport model isn’t really a serious option, so the foods are delivered to the schools, where they’re prepped on-site as a semi self-prep, but USDA-portioned meal service.
JB: What advice would you give someone who was considering child nutrition as a profession today?
DH: Review in your heart do you have a passion for meeting the responsibility of this meal service for children. If in any way you see it as just a business, if in any way you see it as just a show up, get through the day, and out the door, don’t even think about it. But if indeed you have a passion for making a contribution to a child’s successful start of the day of breakfast, successful provision at lunchtime, there’s nothing more rewarding. As a director, to support a team that takes care of that responsibility every day is just terrific; making sure that team has the tools, training, and supply to pull off those thousands of meals every day in your community, ultimately for success in the classroom, but for us selfishly to just make sure that every child [that] has an issue of hunger or nutrition, it’s taken care of in their life for the school day.
JB: Anything else you’d like to add?
DH: I’ll just add another endorsement of the School Nutrition Association as an important support organization that does much, as well as its partnership with the National Food Service Management Institute, that are the real voice for what really happens every day with 33,000,000 school lunches and 11,000,000 school breakfasts. That doesn’t happen by itself. For those outside the arena of those of us that meet the responsibility every day I invite you to get to know us, recognize the history since 1946 that school meals have successfully been provided to generations of Americans, and we have a great future ahead with all the twists and turns that go along with all the changing perspectives that take place in America.
JB: Thanks for sharing with us today.
DH: Thank you, Jeffrey.