Mark Ward, Sr., 0000-00-00 00:00:00
Discover how state agency directors in Alaska and Hawaii meet unique school nutrition challenges. Meet Jo Dawson How do you encourage fresh fruit and vegetable consumption when, say, a pound of grapes can cost more than $15? That’s just one of the many challenges faced by Jo Dawson, state program administrator for the Child Nutrition Program of the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development. “Up here, transportation costs can exceed food costs,” reports Dawson from her office in Juneau, the state capital. A Sprawling State To help Alaska school nutrition operators overcome their unique geographic handicaps, Dawson says her office must “be committed to a customer service-oriented attitude, to doing what makes life easier for operators rather than for my staff.” That commitment is remarkable when you consider that— although Alaska has only 54 school districts that enroll some 120,000 students at 406 schools—Dawson and her team must cover a state that sprawls across 570,374 square miles. “My counterpart in Texas, for example, has about 1,000 staff, while our program in Alaska has nine employees,” notes Dawson. Undaunted, “I absolutely love what we do!” she enthuses, taking pride in her collaborative skills. “We get help wherever we can—from the Department of Health and Social Services for obesity prevention, the Cooperative Extension for help on the HealthierUS School Challenge and the Division of Agriculture for help on our farm-to-school initiative.” That’s right; Alaska does have a statewide farm-to-school program, which Dawson and her team launched last year. It complements a fish-to-school program that has enjoyed success in the Dillingham and Sitka districts. Though limited, both programs bring a welcome variety to participating schools that must place food orders months in advance, since much of it is transported by barge— and rivers tend to freeze early and stay that way until June. That means schools, districts and states face a storage capacity challenge, one exacerbated by the need to ensure that some foods be stored at a warm enough temperature. On the Horizon Long winters and long distances are inescapable facts of Alaskan life of which Dawson’s office—and the school nutrition operators they serve—must cope. Yet, as her team gears up to implement aspects of the new meal pattern regulations, Dawson looks at the bright side: “Finding ways to implement them makes this an exciting time, because it brings opportunities along with the challenges.” Take, for example, the change in the state agency review cycle, shortened from five to three years. Since there are literally no roads out of Juneau, Dawson reveals, “and our staff must fly everywhere, that means we’ll be buying a lot of plane tickets and, hopefully, finding ways to use technology and streamline the review process.” The new federal rules also mandate annual training for some school nutrition operators. “But travel isn’t practical for staff at a small rural school in a remote village,” she notes. Thus, Dawson and her team plan to develop e-learning modules this spring that can be delivered online to school nutrition staff by piggybacking on modules already used for teacher training. Dawson’s understanding of the chal- lenges faced by Alaskan schools was shaped by her own upbringing in the Last Frontier. Her father was a state trooper, and “we were transferred all over the state—from urban centers to fishing villages to above the Arctic Circle. Dad was a community helper, and that gave me a desire to give back through public service.” Dawson began just doing that in 1992 as data manager for a state mental health agency. She later became a medical assistance administrator for the state Medicaid program and in 2005 joined the Child Nutrition Program to administer the Child and Adult Care Food Program. In time, she was given oversight of additional programs and named agency head in June 2011. An SNA member since 2007, Dawson serves on the board of the Alaska School Nutrition Association. “The members are from diverse parts of the state,” she reports, “which makes it a microcosm of Alaska—and demonstrates how advancing child nutrition here requires a commitment to mutual effort and support.” SN Meet Susan Uyehara You might think Hawaii would be a tropical paradise for fresh fruits and vegetables. But as Susan Uyehara, state agency director for the Office of Hawaii Child Nutrition Programs, points out, “The amount of agricultural land is limited. That also means the land is expensive, which reduces diversity, since small farmers are challenged. So, students at home don’t get much exposure to fresh produce, simply because it isn’t grown here.” Beautiful Yet Complex According to Uyehara, 85% of the food consumed in Hawaii is imported from outside the state. “Ninety-eight percent of our milk comes from out of state,” she notes. Factor in transportation costs (“milk averages $5 a gallon right now”) and the economic drivers on the family budget mean that many students like and eat school lunch, as it may be their only source of fresh produce—and sometimes their only daily meal. Another complication of Hawaii’s small size and distance from the U.S. mainland, Uyehara adds, is that “mainland food manufacturers might not want to get involved with [selling to] the school market here.” She suspects that another detraction is Hawaii’s state-centralized school system: Its seven islands, four counties, 258 schools and 174,000 students are encompassed in one school district. “Manufacturers might think [it] is a lot of trouble, just to make a sale in a single district,” she remarks. Nonetheless, Hawaii enjoys a rich food culture that influences local tastes, although not always for the better. “Soy sauce is used in many local foods, which acclimates young taste buds to high sodium content,” Uyehara laments. “And Hawaii is the leading user of spam. It goes back to the days when plantation laborers used canned meat as a cheap and dense source of nutrients. Today, spam musubi, sort of an ‘Asian hamburger,’ is our favorite fastfood. All told, nutrition education here can be a challenge.” Facing such uphill battles, it’s not a surprise that Hawaiian schools have not earned a HealthierUS School Challenge designation. “But many are interested,” insists Uyehara, “and we’ve gotten a grant to advise some of these schools, so they can become models for others.” Grant money also has been secured to aid in overcoming another trial. Uyehara and her staff of 12 manage all aspects of school nutrition, state oversight and local operations, and they have been doing so largely without much technological support. The new funding is earmarked to change that—providing automation that will be just in time to help her and her team better identify school sites that might be at risk for noncompliance with federal rules. To help schools meet new federal training requirements, her office hopes to produce and deliver computerized training modules. Conferences, classes and meetings are impractical. Travel between the Hawaiian Islands “is all by air—and even then, air service isn’t very accessible for all seven islands, and many of our schools are in remote locations,” she explains. Rural Roots Uyehara has traveled long and far from where she grew up: the rural town of Logansport, La., where her father ran the local general store. Because he was diabetic, she became interested in dietetics and went on to earn a 1977 degree from Louisiana’s Northwestern State University. Later, she helped open a rural clinic through the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program. While her husband served in the Air Force, the couple moved to Florida, California and back to Louisiana, before settling in Hawaii in 1986, where he is now an airline pilot. Uyehara earned a master’s degree in public health nutrition from the University of Hawaii at Manoa and worked 15 years as section chief in the WIC program before being named to her current post in 2006. “I had a huge learning curve and our office is still pioneering in many areas,” she relates, “so SNA is an invaluable source for me of networking, training resources and models for best practices.” Though she is the longest-serving director of her state agency, Uyehara readily admits, “Child nutrition is complex because there are so many programs, sub-programs and regulations. But even in paradise, these programs make a huge difference in the lives of our kids.” SN Current Title: State Program Administrator City, State: Juneau, Alaska Full Name: Josephine Profession You’d Choose If Not School Nutrition: Milliner (hat maker) Bedside Book/Magazine: A Breath of Snow and Ashes by Diana Gabaldon Dream Dinner Guest: Martin Luther King, Jr. Hobbies: Fishing, Girl Scout leader Current Title: State Agency Director City, State: Honolulu, Hawaii Favorite School Food as a Kid: Chicken tetrazzini and peanut butter cookies Bedside Book/ Magazine: School Nutrition magazine Someone You Admire: Mother Teresa Top of Your Bucket List: Family visit to Japan Favorite Subject in School: Home economics
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