Allison Purmort – Southwest Foodservice Excellence
Many factors influence children’s ability to learn from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. They need reliable tools and resources, like laptops and a strong internet connection, as well as an environment that offers support without distraction. And to concentrate, they can’t be hungry.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 20 million students rely on free school lunches and more than 14 million rely on free school breakfasts. Now that many kids are learning from home, they have the potential to go hungry.
Southwest Foodservice Excellence is working with school districts to make sure students are being fed, whether they’re learning from school or home. As general counsel, Allison Purmort is ensuring USDA regulations are being met as SFE expands into more states.
“School nutrition has changed completely during COVID and a lot of regulatory changes are happening quickly,” she says. “We’re dealing with a frequently changing landscape.”
SFE is an Arizona-based company that provides meals to K-12 school districts in over a dozen states. It works with chefs and dieticians to ensure the meals are nutritionally balanced and with school districts to tailor menus.
As Purmont notes, most of SFE’s meals are made “fresh-from-scratch” using local ingredients, including fresh fruits and vegetables as well as herbs and spices.
The USDA has strict regulations around which nutrients need to be provided to students, so she ensures SFE complies with the National School Lunch Program’s standards. Aside from making meals healthy, SFE strives to make the food enjoyable. The company works with the school districts to select menus and conduct taste tests with students to get their feedback.
“We’re serving them food they actually want to eat,” Purmort says. “It’s some of their favorites as well as on-trend, restaurant-inspired recipes.”
SFE offers a variety of menus and allows schools to pick a new one every month so students get variety. Menu themes are based on food styles and flavors, like Asian, Italian, Mexican, Creole, Mediterranean and barbecue, as well as around types of food, like sandwiches, salads and soups.
Menus also are made with dietary restrictions in mind. If a school has more vegetarian or vegan students, the menus will reflect that. Schools with large Muslim or Jewish populations can select Halal or Kosher menus, “so students can eat anything on the menu without worrying,” Purmort says.
Keeping up with change
Before menus are selected, school districts need to enter contracts with SFE, which is where Purmort comes in.
Prior to her being recruited as the company’s first general counsel in November 2020, SFE didn’t have an attorney reviewing its contracts. Now that she’s there, Purmont ensures the contracts are compliant with both federal and state requirements.
She’s especially busy winter through May when districts are renewing their contacts and when SFE is responding to districts looking for a new food service provider. Many districts are now distributing meals to remote learners. Some deliver meals while others have them available for pick-up, with both options usually being done in bulk once a week.
This new process requires SFE to package the food differently so students or their parents can prepare it at home. Purmort makes sure SFE stays compliant as the standards evolve.
Aside from contracts, the first few months of Purmort’s role have been spent putting new legal practices and procedures into place. She says she’s been enjoying making high-level decisions as it’s her first time being a general counsel.
“I get to do it all, top to tail,” she says.
Work with an impact
Holding two assistant general counsel roles since 2016, Purmort was ready for the next step. Her previous position was also in the foodservice industry, where she worked on intellectual property, contracts, franchising and M&A.
She also has experience in the sports and entertainment industries, having worked for the Charlotte Hornets for over five years after graduating law school. She worked her way up from intern to assistant general counsel at the NBA franchise in her home state of North Carolina.
Being on the opposite side of the country from SFE hasn’t hindered Purmort since COVID-19 has everyone working remotely. And with the company expanding to other parts of the country, her position isn’t dependent on geography.
Purmort says she’s excited about helping SFE earn contracts in new states and that she can see the company expanding beyond school food into other markets. SFE already offers food trucks to large school districts, which Purmort thinks can translate to entertainment and event industries, while the federal contracting model would work well for adult congregate feeding.
For now, though, working with schools is plenty fulfilling. Purmort says she can’t imagine the stress of doing school from home, let alone the added concern of getting enough to eat.
“I feel really good about what I do because it has a tangible effect on people,” Purmort says. “It’s nice to work in an industry where you can see the impact of what you do.”
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