Donte Fassett is a classically trained chef and caterer, who has operated everything from food trucks to fish markets. So he knows a thing or two about food. And what Fassett knew, in 2015, was that the processed and prepackaged food his son, Mason, was being served at his West Oak Lane daycare was not up to par.
Any parent might find this less than desirable, but for a chef it was anathema.
So Fassett, who was operating a food truck across the street from the daycare, started prepping his son’s food, and dropping it off everyday at lunchtime. Before he knew it, the owners of the daycare had asked him to cook for all of the kids at the center—which he did, for the next two years.
It became clear to Fassett that the poor quality of food was probably a recurring problem not just at his son’s daycare, but at daycares throughout the city. So in 2017, he launched Mason Meals, a nonprofit dedicated to providing children in daycare with delicious, healthy food. After a slow start—it’s not easy convincing providers to switch their caterers—Fassett now serves nearly 900 kids at 24 daycare centers, mostly in Northwest Philly.
“You know, ‘live by the sword die by the sword’? For us it’s ‘live by the kids,’” Fassett says. “My motto is, ‘No child should go home hungry from daycare.’”
The food Mason Meals provides is all fresh—except, Fassett says, the “chicken nuggets, because the kids just love those.” Mason Meals takes into account allergies and religious dietary restrictions, using a lot of peanut butter substitutes and keeping pork off the menu.
Fassett and his crew also provides food for after school programs at several of the daycares, particularly those with a high percentage of families experiencing financial hardship. “You know, ‘live by the sword die by the sword’? For us it’s ‘live by the kids,’” Fassett says. “My motto is, ‘No child should go home hungry from daycare.’”
Fassett is a Philly man with Southern roots, whose big family and love for food tie back to his days as “a grandma’s boy,” helping to prep the food—turkey, mac-n-cheese, rice—for Thanksgiving. “That put the light bulb in my head to start cooking,” he says. That led to study at Le Cordon Bleu in Pittsburgh, a decade of various professional culinary jobs from inns to fish markets, and later his own catering companies and food truck, Chef Donte’s Delicious Dishes. In addition to Mason Meals, Fassett last month also opened Alena’s Cafe, named for his eldest daughter, who was born in 2010.
But it’s Mason Meals where Fassett has invested his passion. When he started, he knew no one outside of his son’s day care operators. “I googled daycares, I called daycares, I did cold calling, I introduced myself, I was trying to see if they would let me cook for them,” he recalls. When he got a reply, it was mostly to say no thank you; finding operators willing to switch from food providers they’s worked with often for decades was difficult. In December of 2017, Fassett finally got his first customer, with 30 kids. By the following February, he was up to 230 kids. Mason Meals now has two trucks, and nine employees, including his wife, Amber, and brother-in-law.
Most of the centers pay Mason Meals through the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), which is a program set up by the US Department of Agriculture to help provide meals to children and elders living in poverty. Non-profit daycare centers, as well as for-profit centers at which 25 percent of enrollees qualify for Title XX food assistance, are able to provide their children CACFP-subsidized meals. Daily, about 3.5 million children and elders across the country receive meals subsidized by the CACFP.
Paying for daycare is a challenge for many families, and to address that Congress allocates money through the Childcare and Development Block Grant, which is given to individual states to spend on low-income childcare needs. In Pennsylvania, daycare subsidies are given out by the Lead Agency of the Childcare and Development Fund (CCDF), paying daycare centers on behalf of low-income enrollees. However, only one in six eligible parents receive assistance, as the money only goes so far. There are also several tax credits regarding childcare expenses, such as the Child and Dependant Care tax credit, available to low-income families. However, many families, while still being low-income, do not—for a variety of reasons—qualify for these credits. With government failing to fully meet childcare needs, a number of non-profit childcare centers fill in the social vacuum, and through their partnerships with Mason Meals, feed them as well.
While serving kids “delicious, healthy food” is priority number one for Fassett, he also sees Mason Meals as an opportunity to create jobs in the community, training employees through work that is fulfilling. Fassett points to Michael DeBeury, the manager of Mason Meals, as an example. DeBeury began as a delivery driver by responding to an ad on Craigslist after a years-long career as a teacher. Then he became a prep cook and a line cook, before becoming manager; he’s planning to attend culinary school next year. “We are a team here,” Fassett says. “Everyone knows that they don’t work for me, they work with me.”
Fassett’s meals include healthy staples like quinoa, carrots, fresh fruit, and shepherd’s pie. He is conscious of who he’s feeding, and of the issues many face in their homes, with little access to nutritious food, resulting in obesity, diabetes and high sugar. “Parents have told me that their kids don’t eat vegetables at home, or that they—the parents—only eat one vegetable,” says Moneek Pines, director of Artrageous, a daycare in Mt. Airy. That’s one reason, she says, she hired Mason Meal in April of 2018 to provide food for her 14 children.
Fassett still gets the most satisfaction from his toughest critics, the children themselves, who Pine says rush in from recess to see what he’s put on the menu. They also don’t hesitate to give feedback. “Kids ask, ‘Are you making more of that banana bread?’” Fassett says. “It’s a great feeling to see kids wanting to eat.”Photo: Benjamin Butz-Weidner