Photo courtesy Jamal McCall

Jamal McCall grew up in Southeast D.C., where he says “school food played a major part in my meals for the day.” He knows what it’s like to look forward to school lunch and what’s it like to depend on those meals for nutrition. That’s why he returned home from Memphis, Tennessee, where he served as the executive director of KIPP charter schools, to launch Elite Group Solutions, a food service company that makes breakfasts and lunches for D.C. charter schools.

McCall is starting small by servicing the Cesar Chavez schools, including Parkside Middle School, Parkside High School, Chavez Prep Middle School, and Capitol Hill High School. He says some of the students at the schools come backgrounds similar to his, making the mission more personal. “It’s important for me to know that at least the two or three meals they receive from us are healthy, balanced, and full of variety,” McCall says. “Something that will stick to them, and something they can look forward to. That will go a long way to get them through the week.”

McCall and his team are working out of the new Ivy City location of Union Kitchen, where they prepare between 1,300 and 1,500 meals a day for students. A typical breakfast might be a granola yogurt parfait layered with blueberries and raspberries, while a lunch might be bourbon chicken with fresh green beans and a side of fresh fruit. “Not knowing what they’re exposed to at home, we try to use this as platform to expose them to fresh kiwi, fresh mango, things they wouldn’t pick up themselves,” McCall explains. “If you’ve never tasted it or seen it, it’s hard to relate, so we’re trying to close some of those gaps. That’s the educator side of me.”

He works with a nutritionist who occasionally slaps him on the wrist if he tries to slip in a cinnamon roll, plus he follows USDA guidelines. That said, when he was visiting with students after his first few weeks in operation, they asked to swap the sweet potato fries they were getting for regular french fries. “I’m not opposed to that, but you know the difference—maybe one time every two months I’ll make it happen.”

As a longtime educator and former school principal, McCall’s overall goal is to set students up to succeed. “When you’re eating healthy, you can be a lot more alert. Hopefully, it will increase student achievement,” he says, adding that healthy food helps students gain the stamina to sit up in class versus the naps that occur after pumping kids full of grease. While McCall says he hopes to grow into other schools next year, he doesn’t want to expand too quickly and sacrifice quality.