Interviewee: Jamal Hazzan
Interviewer: Jeffrey Boyce
Date: October 12, 2018
Location: Institute of Child Nutrition, University, MS
Description: A native of Beirut, Lebanon, Jamal Hazzan immigrated to the States with his family and grew up in New York State. Hazzan earned degrees in economics and business administration and learned the food business by managing fast food restaurants before taking school food service positions in the Aldine and Klein school districts in Texas. After twenty-seven years in school food service Hazzan retired and now works as a trainer/consultant.
JB: I’m Jeffrey Boyce and it is October 12, 2018. I’m here at the Institute of Child Nutrition with Jamal Hazzan. Welcome Jamal, and thanks for taking the time to talk with me.
JH: Thanks for having me.
JB: Could we begin by you telling me a little bit about yourself, where you were born, where you grew up?
JH: Yea. Actually I was born in Beirut, Lebanon. My family and I immigrated to the United States in 1969. We lived in Buffalo, New York, when we first moved to the States. My father worked in the airlines so we transferred around a lot. We lived in Anchorage, Alaska, for about two years, and then finally, if you will, my growing years were on Long Island in New York, in Hempstead, New York.
JB: So you went to elementary and high school there then?
JH: High school in New York, in Hempstead. Uniondale High School is where I graduated from. Junior high I guess was in Alaska, and elementary was in Buffalo, New York.
JB: Were there school feeding programs at the schools?
JH: If there was a feeding program at that time I really didn’t know much about it. In my high school we had two serving lines. There were maybe 1,500 students in the school and each serving line served the same food. I did not know much about the lunch program at that time.
JB: Do you remember any of your favorite menu items?
JH: Absolutely. When they had meatball gyros, because most times I took my sandwich from home, but whenever they had meatball gyros on the menu I would tell my mom I wanted to buy lunch, and she would give me a little money to buy a National School Lunch.
JB: Tell me about your educational background. Where did you go to school after high school?
JH: When I first graduated high school I went to the State University of New York at Buffalo, and I got a bachelor degree in economics. And later on in my career I realized that I probably needed an advanced degree. I went to school at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, and I got my master’s in business administration.
JB: So how did you get involved in child nutrition programs?
JH: That’s a good question. When I first got out of college I started working for Burger King Corporation as a manager in a unit store, and really learned the food business that way. That’s not really a good home life, if you will, being a manager of a fast food restaurant. Nights, weekends, holidays – you’re on call 24 hours a day. A position came open in Aldine Independent School District, which is in the Houston area. I applied for the position and I got it. And that was in 1991.
JB: Has there been a mentor or someone along the way who was influential in directing your career in child nutrition?
JH: I think we all have some mentors during our careers. The one that is my biggest mentor, and I’m not really sure if she even knows it, was my first boss in Aldine, Joyce Lyons. Joyce – how do I want to put it – showed me what a director’s supposed to do, if you will. What are the responsibilities of a director, even though I was not a director, but she took me under her wing and taught me the business. Although I knew the food business on the commercial side, the school lunch program is a little bit different. She took me under her wing, and I’m still in contact with her even after I retired.
JB: So what positions have you held in child nutrition?
JH: Ok, the first one in Aldine the title was Food Service Equipment and Safety Coordinator. Basically I was in charge of having the equipment maintained in the schools. I was the safety coordinator, so I would do safety classes, work with workers’ compensation, the district central office insurance people, to make sure that we have a safe environment for our staff. Anytime we remodeled schools and/or constructed new schools my duties were to work with a kitchen consultant to put a school together, and really that’s one of my favorite parts of the job.
JB: How big was the district?
JH: Aldine when I first started, there, I believe, were like 48 schools. Now, I believe, there are like 69 schools. They are fairly large. After I finished at Aldine a got a position at Klein Independent School District, which is an adjoining district to Aldine. They’re all in the Houston area. And at that time Klein, I believe, had about 28 campuses and about 28,000 students. When I retired we had 50 campuses and a little bit over 50,000 students.
JB: So you retired from Klein then?
JH: I retired about a year and a half ago, yea.
JB: So what positions did you hold at Klein?
JH: I went in as a director, and I retired as a director.
JB: Ok. So do you feel like your educational background helped you in your career in child nutrition?
JH: Absolutely. First of all, forecasting and projecting purchases and all that kind of stuff, statistics and economics, is a good way to look at it, and my business background really is, I believe, what helped. When I operated my department I looked at it as a business. We’re here to feed the children, the students, but still we have to do it within budget constraints, if you will. And that’s how I handled it. I handled it as a business. There was no profit involved and that made it a funner place to run, if you will. And the goal was to feed children, and what better result do you want than that?
JB: Exactly. Is there anything unique about Texas regarding the child nutrition programs?
JH: It’s big. Not really. There are about 1,100 school districts in Texas. They’re spread out. As you know, Texas is fairly large. A lot of them are concentrated around the major cities, but most of them are in rural areas. So when we’re working with our peers you get to see the differences of the way you have to operate your department when you’re in different places.
JB: Were you active in the Texas state association?
JH: I was very active with the Texas Association for School Nutrition. When I first started my mentor, Joyce Lyons, was vice-president at the time, or going to be president, so she of course mentored me into it, and I held just about every committee position as a chair for every committee they had – there was a couple I think – nutrition education was not my specialty, so I didn’t do that. I was elected as state treasurer four times, so I served on the executive committee for eight years total. And that was my way of paying back to my community, my work community, if you will.
JB: What about the national association?
JH: I didn’t really do much with the national association. The state association took up most of my time. And I felt I could help my immediate peers, if you will, working with the state association, but I did belong to the national association.
JB: And I would guess the state association would be fairly large.
JH: Yes. When I first started it was about 8,000 members. I believe right now there are about 5,000 members that they have. It is fairly large.
JB: What was a typical day like for you on the job, or is there such a thing?
JH: That’s a silly question. There is no typical day when you’re in the food service business, and that’s what makes it fun Jeff. Really, if it was where you go in and sit at a desk and fill out reports, it wouldn’t have been something that I would like to do. You have all kinds of things happen. You have a whole crew not show up somewhere. You have a freezer that goes down on you. You’re doing a catering for the board of trustees and the lights go out. So you don’t really ever have a normal day, if you will. But at least for me that’s what made the job so much fun.
JB: What are some of the biggest changes you have seen in the profession over the years?
JH: The nutritional standards that have come down over the years to the school nutrition program – good ones I believe. I believe in my 27 years I think we’ve had five changes, which was one about every five years, and major changes when I say. I believe, in my opinion, every change was better than the change that we had before, so we kind of built on the changes as we went along. That last change with the last requirements and all that, yea, people bucked the system and they hollered this and that, but if you look at it and understand why it’s being done, I think it’s being done for the best for our children. And if you’re in this business that’s what you’re interested in.
JB: What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced over the years?
JH: The biggest challenge was and is and I think will be, is staffing, staffing your units. Like I told you, I had when I retired, there were 50 units or campuses that we had. I had over 650 employees to hire, train, and retain, – a big challenge in the economy. And training – in Klein, the 650 employees – we had a United Nations. There were people from every part of the world. When I say that I’m not exaggerating. So trying to train people that maybe don’t have the language expertise and knowledge and all that is a challenge. And at least in the Houston area I don’t see that changing any time soon.
JB: Was your district unionized?
JH: No, no unions in Texas. Texas is a right to work state.
JB: Any memorable stories of people you’ve worked with or special kids you’ve served over the years?
JH: I don’t think there’s any one story. Some of my managers, and they’re the backbone of the whole operation, some of the antics that they would pull, some of the things they would do in a managers’ meeting, kept it fresh. But it was all done in a camaraderie deal. That’s probably the best part of the whole job, is we’re all comrades, we’re all buddies. We’re all in this battle together, because it is tough. We don’t care if the lights go out. We don’t care if the air conditioning goes out. We don’t care if the water is shut. We’re still going to serve a breakfast and we’re still going to serve a lunch and get these kids fed. So we have to build teams and make sure the leaders of these teams, which will be the managers, are dedicated to what they do and willing to go the extra mile. And you’ve seen that the last few days with the managers at this training.
JB: What would you say has been your most significant contribution to the field?
JH: When I first started in this business, in this industry, if you will, being financially responsible was not a key issue, and I worked really hard to let people know if we wanted to provide nutritious meals to our students we needed to have the money to pay for it. So we have to operate in a way to be able to do both. To generate enough funds, if you will, to pay for menu improvements, to improve facilities, to improve serving areas. I feel with the things I did in my district, and of course we share everything with others, I feel that, at least from the response of my peers, that they felt that these were important things to do in the industry, and I feel that my district was the leader in it.
JB: What advice would you give someone that was considering child nutrition as a profession today?
JH: I think this is a great, great profession, if you will. It’s not a job, it’s a career. You have to be dedicated. If you want to get into it, you need to get the knowledge in the basic knowhow of the school business. Not only the child nutrition end of it, because that’s just one department in a larger organization. So you need to learn how to fit in an organization, and not just in your department, and realize that the department is part of an organization, and that the organization is part of the department.
JB: You mentioned training. Do you do a lot of training now?
JH: I think without training we all can’t function. I believe in training really, really strong. I did it since day one of my career whether it was the private sector or in the school district. I believe my managers need to know everything we can teach them about the program so they can do their job correctly. I believe that I need to train the specialists the best that I know how so they can do their job correctly. It’s no different than my assistant directors, my dietitian, and my menu planners, all these folks. They need to be doing constant training. We get old and stale if we don’t do that and we don’t learn any new programs. I started working for ICN as a consultant I believe ten years ago now, and it’s a passion. I love being out with my peeps and teaching them. When we’re out there teaching I feel like they’re a sponge and they’re absorbing everything that we give them. The material that we have is awesome, and there’s a need for it. And I strongly, strongly believe in training. It’s probably one of my priorities for the personnel.
JB: Anything else you’d like to add today?
JH: It was a great career, twenty-seven years being in the child nutrition program. If I had to do it again I would do the same exact thing, nothing different. I would get the training I needed for that business and go after it and try to be a leader on what I do.
JB: Thank you for taking the time to talk with me today.
JH: Thank you.