Having boarded his 100th flight of the year, it’s fair to say that Chef Michael Levine spends a lot of time with his head in the clouds. But Mike stays grounded in a mission that matters. He is striving to end childhood hunger one meal at time. Through a company he founded, Global Food Solutions, which was recently named one of fastest growing companies by Inc.com, Mike is getting closer to that goal. We spoke to this Forbes 30 Under 30 winner about why he’s passionate about good food for kids, how he got to where he is today, where the industry is headed and how peanuts play a part.
NPB: Why are nutritious school lunches such a passion for you?
ML: The school food industry has become something that I have become incredibly passionate about over the last few years. Early in my business career I had the opportunity to work in some schools and was in a particularly large school district one day for lunch. I witnessed a child who was still hungry and asked for more food and the cafeteria staff turned the child down because of regulations at the time, they said. I was so taken back. I couldn’t believe that this child reached out and was brave enough to ask for help, and that this was happening in my community and no one wanted to even do anything about it to help. Later in the day, the extra food was disposed of, and that child remained hungry. I said at that point there has to be something I can do to be part of the tens of millions of meals served daily in schools all around the USA. At the time if we helped one or 100 kids it didn’t matter; we wanted to start something that would drive change.
NPB: What role did food play for you growing up?
ML: Some of my earliest food memories are with my family cooking dinners. I grew up in an incredibly busy family, and it always helps if someone could help cook dinner at night so we could all eat at the table together. I think this was a valuable lesson for me because food—no matter how big or small—always brings me back to the table and that one meal approach to helping one or one million people with better food. It all starts at that table.
NPB: You have a unique educational background that combines food and business. What inspired you to pursue degrees in culinary arts and business entrepreneurship?
ML: When I applied to Johnson & Wales University, I was a bit unsure of what I entirely wanted to do with my entire career. I knew one thing was that I loved food and I liked general business. I didn’t know what areas but the broad base of the things I enjoyed spending my time doing. I think I took more of a leap into a space and then found my own thing in that area over time. I think it was the best thing I could have done at the time; it taught me many things but most importantly got me into the science of food and all that goes into making a dish. I was then able to expand on the sciences and business fundamentals I learned to build our company Global Food Solutions today.
NPB: What are the trends you see in school nutrition and other volume foodservice operations to provide better options?
ML: I think there are a lot of exciting trends taking place currently in the foodservice market. One of the more intriguing things to me has been the growth in fresh food and food deliveries to schools. More home meal kit delivery businesses and other food businesses are exploring new ways to get products faster to customers. That is allowing for these business models to be tested in large applications to produce new products for the foodservice industry that are fresher than ever before at massive volume. I think the most significant trend that’s here to stay and grow is making frozen cool again across the board. It requires fewer preservatives and is an excellent method for distribution and preserving high-quality food products.
And, we couldn’t let Mike get away without asking for a few insights about how and why he uses peanuts in his work.
NPB: How do peanut ingredients like peanuts and peanut butter play a role in your business and in feeding kids?
ML: Peanuts are a massive piece of our business. We have products that incorporate everything from peanut butter to oils, and powders. Like any of our product lines that use an allergen, it is crucial to pay attention to all the food safety plans and critical details when creating any new product for us. We currently do not use some ingredients as we view their use of environmental resources too significant when compared to a more sustainable product like peanuts. When working to incorporate alternative protein sources in products, peanuts are always our go-to, and they are always 100% domestic!
NPB: How do you manage allergy issues in production and marketing?
ML: Allergy issues are something we take very seriously at Global Food Solutions and something that I head up for our company personally as we view all food allergies of equal importance. Over the last few years, it has become a hot topic of conversation around the entire industry. I think it’s just something to be conscious of when producing any food, but when managed like any other allergen in a food production facility, they do not present any additional food safety issues. I believe it all comes down to knowledge and understanding of the ingredient combined with smart decisions that allows for mass production and keeping people safe who may have food allergies.
On the marketing side, I think this is something that has been blown way out of proportion the last few years. Yes, allergens are a severe issue when producing food, but based on the data out there, less than 1% of the population has a peanut allergy. I believe in marketing the food and the real truth of the food for what it is, not what we want the customer to perceive about the product.
NPB: What are the most creative ways peanuts are used?
ML: Some of the more creative ways I have seen people use peanuts in an industrial or commercial food space recently are in things like peanut milk and bars for a high-protein snack with a peanut base which are both good products. I also had the chance to experiment with a cold pressed green peanut oil recently which I was very intrigued by the fresh flavor it brings to a dish. On a super creative side, I ate a peanut butter and jelly donut that had peanut butter powder in the dough, and was filled with a peanut butter and jelly mixture with a drizzle of more peanut butter and a dusting of even more peanut powder! I think it’s safe to say I finished it.