I am them and they are me: How to lead a team feeding a city of children

Published on : 5/14/20
  • Michael Williams, General Manager at Flint Community Schools for SodexoMAGIC, shares the story of how he and his team have been ensuring that the children of Flint do not go hungry throughout the coronavirus pandemic:

    Michael WilliamsBefore being hired with SodexoMagic, the biggest challenge in my career so far has been OPPORTUNITY.  In Dearborn, my skin color was a roadblock. I am one of 10 children, and we were one of the only African American families in the area where I grew up in Detroit MI. The police would follow me home from school because they didn’t believe that I lived locally; if a cell phone went missing at the recreation center – they searched my bags; and, people just didn’t expect black boys to graduate high school. But I did.

    I also learned how to speak Arabic fluently, received a scholarship for college and graduated in Sports Medicine. I played basketball professionally in Spain, Italy, and in California for the Lakers (Development League).

    However, the service industry caught my eye, and after mentoring and teaching basketball to kids for a long time, I wanted to move into food service for schools.

    I started at Sodexo in healthcare, because they didn’t have an opening in a school near me but eventually an opportunity came up with a different food service company. While I performed well in the role, I was one of 3 people of color on a team of 125 and felt like no matter how hard I worked to achieve progress, ideas were always blocked and we stayed stuck in the same old ways. 

    I also craved a position in a less affluent area where I could really make a difference. I found a position back with SodexoMAGIC in the Flint (MI) District, and they’re letting all of my talents flourish; they’re behind me 100%.  After only one month in the new city and new role, the Coronavirus turned our world upside down and gave me one of the biggest challenges of my life.

    Observing the news, I saw the shutdowns closing in on Michigan (we were one of the last to close), and so I sat down and created a plan. We were given shutdown orders on March 12, and began serving on March 15th. Just a few days later the Michigan Department of Education and the USDA requested that we serve every child in the city under 18, to ensure families hurt by the shutdown could still feed their children.

    We went from serving 4,000 meals a day across our schools to 12,000 meals across the whole city with just half the workforce. A huge proportion of the team are high-risk, so we went from a team of 98 to 48 overnight.

    School boy, team working together loading buses

    With 22 school busses, we delivered food directly to the homes of the most vulnerable children, and the most disadvantaged areas so families without transportation could easily collect meals, as well as creating drive-up distribution points. Demand was high, and at the biggest location, we would distribute 3-4,000 meals a day with a line that stretched a mile long. 

    We’ll hit a million meals served by the end of July

    If you want the truth, it was overwhelming at first. The biggest challenge was to find out how to get 48 individuals to move as one, to meet all of our deadlines, to work like a fine-oiled machine. It was hard, especially in those first 2 weeks; everyone was struggling to keep going in below-freezing conditions and with concern for their health. Also, I’m very methodical: I want to know my team’s names, nicknames, mannerisms, strengths, pet peeves, how to best communicate with them…but being new, I only knew about half the staff. It was mind boggling, but incredible how everyone focused to get the work done. 

    Not feeding the kids and going on an ‘extended spring break’ was not an option. As a team, we elected to work through our vacation, nights, and weekends to meet the demand. Due to my hour and a half commute, I woke up at 2:30am each morning to be onsite by 5am, to make sandwiches, load busses, fill bags, and didn’t return home until 6pm each night. But I wasn’t alone, many supervisors and employees would arrive at 5am and left at 4pm to make sure children were fed. 

    My hour and half drive to work in the dark was a lot of reflection time; it was time to suit up and get pumped up. The hour and a half ride home was time to decompress. 

    We’re all in the unknown, and we’re all in this together. And whether or not someone tells us, we’re all superheroes. I wouldn’t be able to do this without them. I am what I am because of them.

    Supporting the Black Lives Matter movementMy team feels a responsibility to comfort their community.  As one crisis became manageable, another arose calling me and my team out into the community again in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. 

    If I had believed what people said to me throughout my life, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I feel it’s a big part of my role to stand up for what’s right, not just for me but for my predominately black team and community we serve.

    For me to feel safe with a company, I need to see a multicultural board of directors to know that it truly is possible for me to advance. Not only do I have that at Sodexo, I feel truly supported in my current role. The president of SodexoMAGIC, Selena Cuffe, emails me weekly, cheering me on and my District Manager, Bernard Gladney has complete confidence in me and provided lots of autonomy. 

    If you know in your heart that you belong somewhere, whether that’s working in food service or being the next president, don’t be deterred by anyone else’s words or actions. I can’t accept complacency in myself, no one should. I’m always improving and I actively encourage everyone to persevere and keep going to achieve their goals.

    Find out more about SodexoMAGIC, Sodexo’s commitment to diversity worldwide and search for vacancies with Sodexo anywhere in the world.


    Michael and his team have made local headlines, watch the news coverage here: 

    Michael Williams

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