Some customers are low volume but high prestige, and so feeding America’s elite Olympic athletes is a big win for individual shippers and the produce industry as a whole.
When we had the opportunity to bring a key player in making this happen to the “IDEATION FRESH” Foodservice Forum, co-located with The New York Produce Show and Conference, we asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to get a sneak preview about what she will discuss as part of the panel, titled Identifying And Ideating The Next Big Thing On The Menu:
Terri Moreman, FMP
Associate Director Food and Nutrition Services
United States Olympic Committee (USOC),
Colorado Springs, Colorado
Q: To start, your job sounds like an Olympic feat. You support a global staff serving an estimated 800,000 meals combined at Olympic Training Centers in the U.S. In addition, you’re the liaison to the USOC on athlete meals and special event functions, including the Olympic Games and Pan American Games.
We’re fascinated to learn more about the food and nutrition team behind Team USA, and especially how fresh produce fits within the athletes’ menus and Olympic training programs. You’re now working on your 14th Olympic Games so we would like to know about some of the latest developments in your preparation for the 2016 Summer Olympics. Do fresh fruits and vegetables play a role in the athletes winning strategies?
A: I’m just coming back from Rio. Let me give you a little bit of a snapshot of what the organization is doing in Rio to support athletes on the ground. USOC will have three big, high performance training centers, where Team USA will be doing pre-competition training.
They’ll be coming in and out of the village while they’re training in these particular locations, managed by the U.S. Olympic committee, and not official IOC venues. What we do is make sure the athletes are focusing on their performance. We remove every obstacle out of their way.
They don’t have to think about food. They know we are taking care of it. They don’t have to worry about whether the bus is going to get me to where I need to be. They’ll know this training venue is going to be sanitized and clean, and will be a safe environment.
We’re actually the team behind the team, making sure when they arrive, they’re just focusing on getting to the podium, and on their training and competition.
Q: What happens behind the scenes on the menu front, and more specifically in securing and incorporating produce ingredients?
A: As you know, I’ve done this a few times around. Our trip to Rio was very successful. We had 14 different meetings, every single one outstanding. We met with many vendors wanting to do business with us. My main reason for going was to shore up the remaining food vendors from produce to protein. I told the produce vendor, you’re the answer to my prayers. He was educated at Stanford University, then he lived in Florida, and now he and his family have an international produce business. So he’s going to be the primary vendor providing produce to the U.S. team.
At the same time, I work with the general contractor to get the equipment installed, to make sure it is set up properly in this location, has the right power and receptacles, and the place is fully operational.
Q: Is it OK for us to mention the name of the international produce vendor?
A: I would prefer you didn’t at this time as we haven’t signed any agreements yet. We want to get everything in place first before we make an official announcement of who the players are. I could certainly share who our sponsors are on the ground, but as far as it relates to independent vendors, I would rather not mention them until they’re official partners.
Q: To clarify, it’s just one main produce vendor you’ll be working with, or do you pull from a variety of produce suppliers? How does the sourcing process work exactly?
A: There are a lot of big box stores around… what you’d think of as a Costco or Sam’s Club. They have an abundance of produce there. There are smaller entities that provide produce all throughout Rio, but this international vendor can handle all the fruits and vegetables I need for all the locations. Do I have secondary backup folks? Absolutely. But they’re on a much smaller scale.
Q: How important is fresh produce in menu development? Could you give our readers an idea of the scope? For instance, do you have any statistics on the quantities of produce items purchased in different venues?
A: I just flew 12,000 miles to make sure I had the right produce vendor able to do business with us. It’s extremely important. The fruits and vegetables have anti-inflammatory properties, and they’re vital to the athletes’ performance. When the athletes come into the dining facility, one of the first stops is at the salad bar, and they continue to move down that line where they have a wide choice of fresh vegetable varieties, innovative pre-made salads, nutritious soups, and healthy entrees on the grill, where you can get seasonal grilled vegetables.
You can go to the fusion station, where the athletes can add an animal protein to their particular entrée today or ask to make the entrée with just produce. Combined at all training centers, we purchase about $300,000 in fresh produce a year for around 800,000 meals. That roughly equates to 240,000 pounds of product to support the U.S. team at training centers in the U.S. [The USOC has established three Olympic Training Centers along with 17 Olympic Training Sites located in 15 states throughout the U.S.]
I always think of an athlete as a high performing machine. Like a Rolls Royce, you wouldn’t fill it with low octane fuel; you’d always want to make sure you use high octane fuel. We work hard to select the best fruits and vegetables that are available in the marketplace.
Q: Could you describe the logistical process of sourcing those items, the complexities based on the various locations, issues with seasonality, prices, availability, etc. What variables come into play?
A: We know so many factors impact our costs as operators. Fluctuating costs are critical in menu planning. Fortunately, I’m not selling anything; I’m providing a service to our athletes, so I have to continue to watch and source seasonally and adjust menus based on what’s in season and what’s available to us.
In Colorado, we have a much shorter growing season, but our California location has significantly more opportunity. As much as we think about availability and carbon footprint, if we have to go beyond Colorado or California to source a product, we try to make sure it’s still from North America, so that’s what we use as our guidelines in selecting product.
Q: What about on the international front?
A: Globally, I network with so many groups. For instance, I’m pretty active in the International Foodservice Manufacturers Association (IFMA). When I work overseas, these organizations are so well connected to the industry many times they give me leads for vendors out of the country. I work with these industry leaders of all these major brands, and they really go out of their way to help us and the U.S. team. We have strong relationships.
They don’t teach the students today coming out of higher education how important relationships are. But it’s absolutely critical we build these relationships in this business to create the reputation and environment we want everybody to participate in.
With other corporate sponsors like Hilton properties, I work with their executive chefs or their food and beverage people in various countries and they’ve done all their research and traceability on products, and they’ll give me leads on suppliers. It’s a great starting point, and I’ve built on that information from a number of different relationships I’ve established, which is important.
Q: Do you have any stories to exemplify that importance of relationship building?
A: I have a cute story. I had just boarded the plane headed to Beijing for the 2008 games, got to my seat and was about to turn off my cell phone for takeoff, when my phone rang. “Is this Terri Moreman from the USOC? I’m with the USDA, and I just talked to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. I’m trying to get California strawberries into Beijing, and the Embassy USDA office told me to call you; that you would know how to get them into the country.”
We had a short conversation, and I gave him my number of where to reach me when I arrived in Beijing. Five days later, I had a pallet of the biggest California strawberries you’ve ever seen sitting at the front door entrance of the Olympics dining room in Beijing. Everybody was asking, where did these come from and I said, from the California Strawberry Commission, working with the USDA. You just never know when you’re going to take a phone call and what is going to transpire. That’s what’s so exciting about my job.
Q: How has integration of fresh produce in the U.S. team’s diets evolved?
A: Athletes’ tastes have changed over the years. Now U.S. athletes are used to traveling the world. Most people think the athletes travel to a U.S. training center and that’s all they do. They actually participate in many international competitions. They’re much more knowledgeable and interested in global cuisines and food trends than they were 25 years ago. When they come back from an international trip, they’re always willing to share information, a new fruit, something exotic they may have seen.
In the back of their minds, they’ve always known to eat their fruits and vegetables, but now they have a greater and better understanding of nutrition research. They’re much more aware of the value of fruits and vegetables and how it translates into good performance and overall health for them.
The majority of comment cards we get are all about that salad bar, and always wanting more fresh produce options. When produce is out of season, it makes it a little more difficult to be a good steward of the money. We want to make sure that we’re introducing them to products and varieties that are seasonal.
We go to great pains to be able to educate our athletes. We actually have a graduate student whose biggest job is to educate the athletes on ingredients, from table tags to messaging boards with nutritional information and health benefits, featuring local when we can get it, but produce in general, and how it can impact their performance.
Q: When developing menus, do you have health and nutrition requirements/restrictions you must follow to accommodate different athletes’ needs? Are there rules and regulations involving calorie counts, fat, sugar content, etc.?
A: We have a set of nutrition and eating guidelines established by our sport dieticians and nutrition experts and senior staff. All of us are involved in this process to make sure we deliver a wide variety menu base. We work with the USDA dietary guidelines, but complementing all of that, obviously when you’re dealing with athletes, they’re different than the normal population.
We use sports nutrition guidelines to give us the information we need. As a chef is sourcing beans, it could be a can of beans, although ideally we look for fresh first; we want beans, water and salt and no other ingredients. If we can’t pronounce it, we’re not serving it. It’s that simple.
Q: Actually, that doesn’t sound so simple…
A: You’re right. That’s a tough place to be in the quick service business today, having manufacturers keep up with the demand we have for cleaner products, whether fresh produce or canned items, whatever the case may be. We educate the athletes on the calories, the carbs and the proteins to help them make better choices. Each athlete consumes the same high quality food; the difference is in the volume you consume, whereas a weight-lifter will consume more calories than a gymnast. If someone has an allergy, we customize the menu with the sports dietician.
Q: Could you elaborate on your system for differentiating dietary recommendations based on the type of athlete or their training rigors or weight management issues?
A: We educate athletes on what a plate should look like based on training volume and intensity through their training/competition plan. It varies based on easy training/weight management days, to moderate training workout days to build endurance or strength, to high impact, hard days requiring extra fuel, or if Johnny needs to lose a couple of pounds.
The Athlete’s Plates are a collaboration between the USOC Sport Dietitians and the UCCS Sport Nutrition Graduate Program. No one person gets there alone; there are multiple moving parts.
Q: Do you have ways to measure the results of your menu dietary plans?
A: We just completed an athlete validation study in cooperation with UCCS to help us identify any imbalances in our menu options, and to measure proteins, fats and calories, and where we need to adjust things, and where we see athletes gravitating. And that all ties into their counseling with sports dieticians as well. If a particular athlete is having a problem, it’s not just one person talking to that athlete. We’re a national team; it’s the psychologist, physiologist, dietician… so it’s a group approach to helping Johnny get to the next level. The individual counseling goes through the sports performance area, which is separate from my area. It’s an amazing process. We’re the only organization in the world that does this.
Athletes pretty much eat to win.
Q: That’s a great line. Do you have any evidence or vignettes from athletes to support that premise?
A: We do a lot of veggie and fruit recovery smoothies. The athletes have 30 minutes to 60 minutes from the time they get out of training to come and select the right choices, and to get the right carbohydrates and proteins in them, so recovery smoothies are huge.
I have a graduate student at University of Colorado, Colorado Springs (UCCS), working on a green smoothie recipe development project, and its effect on the body with the iron from the green vegetables and the other nutritional values.
Q: This is part of a research program connected with the USOC? How is it funded, through grants?
A: Yes. We have ongoing projects and are researching different things. We’re actually looking at that right now. A student at UCCS’s nutrition research program has reached out to me about doing more studies like this.
It’s all coming from the University, from grants that we’re benefiting from by learning and getting access to results. And those findings are always shared with our sports dieticians. Our sports dieticians actually make the call on the particular smoothies and the ingredients that are part of this whole wave of health drinks. For instance, sometimes athletes are faced with iron deficiencies and instead of giving them a pill, we’re trying to create real foods that would also help spring board to a stronger immune system.
We make a beet juice beverage. We named it back in London — Beet It. It includes beet juice, fresh pineapple, fresh ginger, and fresh orange juice. You can see how these particular produce ingredients, which have anti-inflammatory properties, have had a huge impact on athletes’ recovery.
The athlete is not that different from you and me. We actually suggest athletes do a fly by and check out everything before making their food choice. They do the same thing as you or I; they eat with their eyes. They’re up for bright colorful fruits and vegetables. You’re talking about an astute, educated, elite athlete who understands how important those minerals and nutrients are in fresh produce.
Q: Could you walk us through the process of developing menus?
A: Basically, our executive chef is the primary person for menu development. She’s our lead collaborator with our sports dietitian, nutrition specialist, or research assistant, and their sous chefs decide where we’re going with our next cycle menu. It’s the same old school of thought; we look at color, texture, taste, knowing our athletes are educated, they’re looking for the next wow, an opportunity to see something new and different and exciting.
So we have ongoing research, pulling from magazines, face-to-face conversations with athletes, talking to sports dietitians… it’s a whole team approach. You can be rest assured, we’re the team behind the team because everything we do is collaborative.
Q: How do corporate sponsors influence menus? For instance, you co-authored the first Olympic Training Table cookbook with Kraft/General Foods.
A: We work with global corporate sponsors and like-minded products. We have a lot of wonderful sponsors and products with important nutrients for the athlete’s diet. We incorporate them into the menu and work around them. We tap into the supply chain of various sponsors as well, which is very beneficial for us, especially with traceability of the product.
I don’t have to be concerned where this particular ingredient is coming from when our sponsors have done all that legwork. If that ingredient is associated with that brand, then I feel safe offering it to the athlete because of the company’s due diligence in traceability.
Recently, we collaborated with Smucker’s to create recipe cards. We do hands-on training sessions with athletes and our culinary teams. We put together mystery baskets with a variety of ingredients, and athletes in teams get x amount of time to come up with a recipe and then present it, and it’s judged by USOC staff, and we award our culinary gold medal. It’s a team approach and everyone is engaged in process.
Q: At Ideation Fresh, our fresh menu challenge, which student chefs, faculty, speakers and Forum participants collaborate on, is always a big hit as well, generating creative ideas and new ways of thinking…
A: The athletes have done a phenomenal job with the challenge. I was blown away by our bobsled team. When they got their mystery basket, they didn’t know what to do with jicama. They were all trying to figure out what it was. We could answer basic questions but weren’t allowed to give them any real guidance.
I hinted that you had it in the salad bar, but it was prepared as a jicama julienne salad, and they hadn’t seen it in that root form before. So, they cut the jicama in pieces with a cookie cutter shaped like a star and actually fried them in a frying pan with a little olive oil and used them as garnishes on the plate. It was so creative. I said, we have our next culinary team right here.
A few weeks ago, 15 athletes made a giant sushi roll at the Colorado Springs Olympic Training Center. It stretched from one end of the kitchen to the other, and all the athletes who signed up got to participate. They shared pictures on social media. (Editor’s note: you can watch the spirited video of their creation here.]
We’ve done recipe ideas on the backs of Coca-Cola cans, where you can use Coca Cola in barbeque sauce and things of that nature. We’ve also done recipes and social media clips on our USOC website with Chobani yogurt, which is a wonderful sponsor as well.
Then there’s our terrific partner McDonald’s. We have access to all their products and the traceability of every one of those products globally, which is great, and this goes on and on. But obviously the top players in the marketplace in the different categories are our Olympic partners.
Q: Do you maintain consistency with your menus across venues, and is that important? It sounds like you have a lot on your plate! How involved to you get in the menu execution and quality control?
A: I oversee the menus, but I delegate a lot of responsibility. I intervene if I see a repetition, or something is not quite what we’re looking for. I can tell you immediately if someone didn’t follow the recipe in color, taste and texture. Our chef has to follow that recipe to a tee. We know if you add more butter it might taste differently, but it’s all tied to the integrity of that information, and our reputation and integrity are tied to that.
We wouldn’t want to provide wrong information. Each person responsible for producing that dish, whether it’s the pantry person, cutting all the fruits and vegetables, to the chef preparing it to the person serving it, to the person putting the nutritional sign up, we have to be sure it matches up 100 percent. We not only have the nutrition information but we identify every allergen on every recipe and every menu sign. If Johnny is allergic to something and hasn’t told us, the information is there for him.
Consistency is the key. We don’t go back to any restaurant where we don’t get consistent, high quality product. I even have signs in the kitchen on the importance of our service standards. We call it the five rings of service: anticipate customer needs, communicate, continue to grow, maintain consistency, and get to a yes. Every employee is empowered to make decisions right at the serving line, just as every athlete is empowered to make his or her own food choices. It’s all about empowering the team.
Q: How can produce suppliers join in that effort? What are the key points you’d like attendees to take away from your talk? Any additional thoughts you’d like to add…
A: For generations, we’ve been told to eat your fruits and vegetables. We come back again full swing. I think it’s important for produce suppliers to invite foodservice providers to their operations, to get us out to the farms, and to really showcase the quality of your product, whether tomatoes are going into a can or into a salad.
This past August I went to a tomato field in California to look at the tomatoes being harvested and processed for our pasta sauce. It was an amazing experience. We must ask produce executives, what do we need to know that we don’t know to accelerate our relationships with the produce industry? How do we break through these silos and create cross-sector product innovation to help play a critical role in our overall health and wellbeing, whether you’re an athlete, a student or a weekend warrior.
Being part of the diet of Olympic athletes is sort of like a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for the produce industry. The big brands that pay up as sponsors are always identified, but the truth is that athletes value fresh fruits and vegetables and eat them heavily even though produce may not be a sponsored product.
The “IDEATION FRESH” Foodservice Forum is focused on helping to build produce consumption and finding ways to leverage opportunities such as this. The program this year has a heavy focus on menu development as a tool to boost produce usage in foodservice. You can see the agenda for this year’s program here.
Come and be a part of helping the industry access the opportunity at hand.
You can register for The New York Produce Show and Conference, including the Global Trade Symposium, the regional tours and the “IDEATION FRESH” Foodservice Forum right here.
The headquarters hotel, where all the action and networking is, is available here.
And travel discounts can be found right here.