Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine, Online

Phillip Garcia: School Meal Mechanic

Phillip Garcia: School Meal Mechanic

Phillip Garcia: School Meal Mechanic

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Most people don’t think about the mechanics of food until they get hungry. Even then, they don’t think about the mechanics. Phillip Garcia does. Food mechanics are Phillip Garcia’s thin red line.

As nutrition director for the Fort Smith Public Schools, this slight, 5-foot 2-inch, 145-pound man is responsible for seeing that every child in the Fort Smith Public Schools receives proper, specified nutrition during the school day. Nutrition may not be an issue within the homes of some Fort Smith children. But, it is in others.                                                                                                               

A speaker recently told a meeting of Fort Smith Public School teachers that, as a child, he often went to bed with “sleep for supper.” 

Garcia’s ideas for feeding children can bring a country to its feet. His love and his kindness can bring it to its knees.

A hard truth is that cancer has stepped into his kitchen. So far, he’s managed to keep it in the pantry with the dried beans and pickled okra.

“I have renal cell carcinoma,” he said, setting his chin. “… I’m a fighter.” 

Welcome to the heavyweight division. 

Phillip’s most recent victory is the Fort Smith School District’s recognition as one of nine Five to Thrive Arkansas school districts awarded a grant through an Arkansas Children’s Hospital fund, in cooperation with No Kid Hungry Arkansas and Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance. Designed to increase nutritional variety and physical activity, the program includes funding and technical assistance.

Maneuvering within the guidelines of government food mandates requires a seasoned veteran. Garcia knows he can add a teaspoon of cilantro if he will subtract a teaspoon salt. Food becomes a game of mathematics.

Born in Casa Grande, Ariz., Garcia, 57, and his wife of 35 years, Ginger, have a daughter who works in the government in Washington. And, while he worships the ground she walks on, your kids are his kids, and he will see that his kids get fed. He backs that up with the fact that during a 45-day summer period of 2018, the Fort Smith Public Schools administered 42,000 federally funded meals to Fort Smith children.

According to Garcia, participating schools averaged feeding 180 breakfasts and 3,500 lunches per week.

“The federal government says, ‘Any child comes in hungry, feed them and we’ll pay you reimbursement cost for that child.’”

“What will kids not eat?” Garcia answers rhetorically. “Beets.”

Garcia is an innovator. Last year, he introduced a “Grab-and-Go” food cart in the high schools. Located outside the cafeteria, the carts served 80-100 students per day that hadn’t been eating previously.

“If the kids won’t go to the cafeteria, I’m going to bring the cafeteria to them,” Garcia said.

Garcia says students attach a social stigma to the cafeterias in the high schools. For many, the cafeterias had simply become uncool.

This year, he is creating a new food option for students with “Offer vs. Serve.” Students select three foods from a choice of five. Those five components must be bread, fruit, vegetables, protein and grain. Three of the five qualifies as a “full plate.”

Within the next two years, he wants to introduce breakfast in the classroom. He also is an avid believer in students taste testing.

“I think our biggest success last year was parfaits,” Garcia said.  “Kids didn’t realize they were eating nutritious food. They thought it was dessert. When the football players are asking for more parfaits, you’ve got something going on.”

Garcia plans to introduce shelf stable milk. Convenience is king.

“Sack lunches on school bus field trips – you won’t need ice chests and what the kids don’t use can go back on the shelf.”

With his mother’s remarriage, Garcia moved and grew up in Chickalah, a tiny spot between Dardanelle and Danville in Yell counties. He describes himself as a nontraditional student.

“My mom didn’t allow Spanish in our house, and my grandma didn’t allow English,” he said. 

With a degree in hotel and restaurant management from Arkansas Tech, Garcia has fed three presidents – Ford, Carter and Bush I – and a governor who would become president, Bill Clinton. 

Garcia has been with the Fort Smith Public Schools for 19 years; 2018 is his second as director.

“I lost a kidney two years ago. The doctors told me I had a 30 percent chance of getting off the (operating) table. They lost me twice on the table. Seven transfusions,” he said. “There was a purpose for that. I’m finally getting to do what I want to do – be the nutrition director for the Fort Smith Public Schools, so I can feed my kids.” 

Story and photos by Glenn Gilley

This article appears in the October 2018 issue of Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine.


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Entertainment Fort Smith Magazine, Online