Cecily Walters 0000-00-00 00:00:00
For someone who “got into foodservice by sheer accident,” new SNA President Sandra Ford, SNS, has had a varied and successful career. Learn about her path through the profession and her goals for SNA and its members over the coming year. PERSONAL AND PROFESSIONAL MOVES have taken SNA’s new president from Pennsylvania to Kansas to Missouri, back to Kansas and then to Florida, and from teaching in the classroom to developing educational materials at a local Dairy Council to working at a state agency to directing a district’s school meals program. But Sandra Ford, SNS, director of food and nutrition services for Manatee County School District, Bradenton, Fla., isn’t (necessarily) planning on another major career change; she knows that she has found her niche in a profession that lets her focus on what she loves best: working with kids and teaching (both kids and adults). School nutrition, she says, gives her “the best of both worlds.” The following interview showcases Ford’s path to and through the school nutrition segment and offers an up-close look at the delight she has found in a Florida lifestyle, as well as her plans and goals for the year ahead. Get to know SNA’s new powerhouse leader. ONE STEP AT A TIME SCHOOL NUTRITION: What was your childhood like? Tell us about your family and what you remember about school lunch growing up. FORD: I grew up in Pennsylvania, moving around the state a lot, because my dad was an executive in the trucking industry. I credit that with my ability to talk to people. My mom stayed at home. I think I’m more like my dad, because I don’t visualize myself as ever being able to stay at home. My brother, who died in 2002, was seven years older than I was. We were not close growing up, because of the age difference, but we were close as adults. I actually hated school lunch! When I was in elementary school, they made you eat everything on your plate before you left the cafeteria; that was just really traumatic to me, being told I had to eat certain things, so I hated going to lunch. I really didn’t like the whole atmosphere of the cafeteria. Sometimes I went home for lunch, even though I only had 35 minutes. SN: Wow! And look how far both school lunch and you have come! Let’s talk a little about how you got here. What did you study in college, and where did you go when you finished school? FORD: I think I was a typical college student, just struggling to make it. If I had to do it over again, I would probably look more seriously at a dietetics and institutional management focus, because I really do like what I do today. My parents wanted me to be a teacher, probably for job security reasons. I think that’s what made me stick with education. But I always wanted to teach. Even now, the parts of my job that I love…are the ones where I can teach and train. I love helping someone be better than they thought they could be. I like being with the kids, and now I love teaching adults, too. I taught high school home economics for the first five years after college. My degree was in home ec education; both my bachelor’s and my master’s are from Kansas State University. I learned about school lunch as a profession when I was teaching. That’s a great memory. I still see those ladies who worked in the school where I taught. They still come to conferences, and they still look me up. It’s really cool that we still have that connection. SN: Describe for us how you ultimately entered the school nutrition profession. FORD: Even when I’m satisfied in my life, I still like to look for the next challenge. After I got married and moved to Independence, Mo., I ended up at Avila College in the foodservice department, because I needed the job. They hired me to work with menus and with kids, but then I ultimately ended up managing the program. Great people worked with me and taught me, hands-on, all I know about foodservice in general, like making mashed potatoes for 500! I left Avila to work as a nutrition education specialist for the Dairy Council of Greater Kansas City in Overland Park, Kan., because that was my next opportunity to teach and do nutrition education. After the Dairy Council, I took jobs that would allow me to take what I’d learned and stretch myself to the next phase. When I applied for a position with the Kansas State Board of Education, it was a career move, because I had absolutely no K-12 foodservice experience. I knew it was just the next best opportunity to move up into the world of school nutrition. I left the state to direct the school nutrition program at Blue Valley School District in Overland Park because I saw better opportunities for me. This was 1994, when the last new meal pattern came out! I wanted to be a teacher; I wanted to make a difference. I was feeling that [with the new regs, the state role was going to be focused on monitoring compliance], and that’s not what I wanted to do. [When interviewing at Blue Valley], the superintendent asked why I was the best candidate for the job, and I told him that in me, he had the best of all worlds. I had taught in K-12, so I understood the politics that go on in a school district, and I knew school nutrition. SN: You spent quite a while working in Missouri and Kansas, but these days, your home is in Florida. What prompted you to make such a geographic change—and what was that transition like for you? FORD: There’s a story behind this! In 2003, after the deaths the year before of my mother and brother, my husband Don and I went on a one-week vacation to the Florida Panhandle. We were walking on the beach, with no footprints other than ours, and everything was quiet. I said to him, “This is really silly. We really like the beach and this whole atmosphere and lifestyle.” There was nothing keeping us in Kansas City; my mother was the primary reason we had stayed there. So, I said, “Let’s move.” He looked at me and said, “Are you serious?” And I said, “I’m serious. Let me network my way to a new job.” I started making connections in January 2004 through SNA, and by July, we were living in Florida, and I had started in my current position in Manatee County. SN: What are some of the differences between operating school nutrition programs in Kansas and in Florida? FORD: The school districts in Florida are bigger than they were in Kansas. There were economic differences, too. In my Kansas district, there was only a 3% free/ reduced rate, and when I started my program in Florida, it had a 50% rate. So, that was a cultural difference for me. I used everything I learned about marketing a program to those who didn’t have to buy lunch at my previous district in Kansas to build my program in Florida. A FRESH APPROACH SN: What is it about K-12 school nutrition that has you hooked? FORD: Someone once told me that I am able to work within the politics of the education realm—and not everyone can. You have to know how to play the game. It’s a give-and-take activity. I may have to give in to a principal, because he wants to do something his way, but because I’ve built a relationship with that person, somewhere down the road, when I have to take back something, saying, “No, I’m sorry; the regulation won’t allow me to look at it that way,” he gives back to me. In addition, the job allows me to teach adults, which, over 25 years, I’ve grown to love doing. But I’m still able to have that kid connection and actually see that I can still make a difference in someone’s life. SN: Tell us a little bit about your program in Manatee and some of the accomplishments that give you the greatest pride. FORD: Before the new meal pattern regulations came out, we were pretty close to meeting them already. We have fresh fruits and vegetables every day, five or six choices. As an alternative to salad bars, we have fresh salad as an entrée option every day. At all grades, the students get to choose their fruits and vegetables. We don’t put it on their tray. We try to make it colorful and make it look good by using merchandising techniques, so that they’re choosing the item that they want. I think there’s good research that backs up that if students are able to choose their food, they’re more likely to eat it. I’m a big proponent of the theory that you have to show kids a food 13 times before they even think about liking it, so we’ve persevered. We’re evaluating our menu for whole grains. Probably about 40% of the grains on our menu last year were whole, so we’re looking to make some shifts there to get to 50%. The limitation of nine grain/bread servings at the elementary level is presenting a bit more of a challenge, because we used to offer lots of different choices, and we have to see how they’ll fit. We’re testing a recipe that will make our sandwich wrap fit the standards, and we’re looking at getting the protein in differently and marketing that to students. It’s about the kids’ well-being. My job is not to change parents’ behavior; my job is to make a cultural shift, especially at the elementary school level. If I can make a difference at K-5, then I’ll carry that student through Grade 12 with those good choices and those good decisions. Since coming to Manatee, I’m proud of rebuilding bridges between the district and individual schools. The program had been broken. The previous director had alienated staff and administrators to the point where they were almost operating as individual schools. Being able to centralize our program again, get us rallied around common goals with one direction and looking at best practices and what’s best for the kids; that’s been the difference, I think, that I have made since coming here. SN: Being able to create change to that degree sounds like it required solid leadership skills. How would you describe yourself as a leader? FORD: I think I’m driven, and I consider myself a servant leader. I wouldn’t ask someone to do what I wouldn’t do myself. I always look at what’s best for the customer, whoever it is— whether it’s my staff, the kids or administrators. SN: And how do you think your staff would describe you as a leader? FORD: “Tough with high expectations.” But they would also describe me as “fair.” Also, my staff would say I like change. I’m always changing things up. We do something different every year. It’s where we get our energy. [Editors’ Note: Some of the people who do know Ford best offer their own descriptions throughout this article.] SN: Where do you turn for career-related inspiration and ideas, and who has been a professional influence or mentor? FORD: I wouldn’t be in my current job if not for SNA. All the opportunities that have come along the way as a result of my involvement in SNA over the past 25 years have allowed me to move forward. I also read a lot, and I love going to classes and trainings and being able to network with people to hear just one morsel that I can take back home, build on and create a different twist for our program. At the Kansas State Board of Education, Rita Hamman, who was the state director but is retired now, dragged me to my first SNA regional meeting in Wichita a month after I started. I remember that [SNA Past President] Gertrude Applebaum led that meeting! I was awed. I was amazed at what all of this was about. Rita impacted me a lot in my career and work decisions and also in terms of leadership style. SN: Let’s talk more about your involvement in SNA. How has it led you to this point? FORD: I joined in 1986. When I heard Gertrude speak at my first meeting, she was someone whose enthusiasm you can’t help but love. When you see someone who’s that passionate about what they do and they’re sharing that with an audience, it felt like it was the right thing to do. As far as my path to leadership, Kansas was an all-volunteer state association. I started doing certification and credentialing, then I became the committee chair for the educational and professional development committee. At each point along the way, I was asked to step up and do something more. Then I worked on building industry relationships, which led to a benefit golf tournament. As a result of that, people told me I should run for state president. Today, we can miss that step—extending a personal invitation to leadership. After serving as state president, I was elected Southwest regional director to the national Board of Directors. From that point, my career blossomed; everything changed because of those experiences. When I attended my first Board meeting, I remember thinking, “This is going to be a challenge for me, because I’m quiet.” If you ask people now, they’ll say, “Seriously? You were quiet?” I think Board service opened the door for me to look at my potential. When SNA Past President Phyllis Griffith asked me to be the ANC chair for St. Louis in 2000, it opened another set of doors. After that, I served as national education chair. In 2003, I ran for president against Janey Thornton and lost. When I think back, I realize I wasn’t ready to be president and the membership was right to have elected Janey. I’m a different person now. I’ve grown so much since then because of the experiences I’ve had, the people I’ve met and the interactions and opportunities I’ve enjoyed. All of them came through SNA; they were all growth opportunities that took me another step forward. SN: Your theme for the coming year is “Transform School Nutrition.” Can you share some of your thoughts and expectations for the next 12 months? FORD: Last year, Helen Phillips asked us to “Stand up for Change,” so in identifying my theme, I considered all of the changes we’ve dealt with in these last months. We have changed, and in a book that I’m reading called Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change, author William Bridges says that once you’ve changed, you have to make change a part of your culture. That’s what “transform” means to me. It’s like anything in life; in order for us to embrace the new and make it the new normal, we need to transform our thinking. Transforming will be a process of making everything clear, including meal patterns, by the time we get to the end of next year. One of my goals for this year will be to focus on establishing professional standards for directors and managers. This goes back to my passion for education. My expectation is to apply the concept of lifelong learning in the development of tools for growth and training. This is my opportunity to help school nutrition professionals get the tools that they need to meet standards that will eventually be set by the federal government as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. I believe that having such standards is important—and that they will be attainable. It will also be a priority for SNA to help members meet the new meal pattern requirements, especially through tools and training. We’ll also find out the best practices for meeting the requirements and share these. I do believe that we can do this and hope that we can calm fears. In this effort, it will also be important to focus on raising public awareness in their own communities. We all know that, as a profession—and a predominantly female one at that—we don’t toot our own horns enough. But being humble is proving a disservice, because in the absence of sharing our stories and achievements, others are creating their own message for us. Instead, all of us, at every level, need to understand what’s going on with the meal patterns and other hot topics, so that we can then spin the message to show the good things that we are doing for children. It’s all about the kids! Our public awareness efforts need to start with our own team members. We need to create an upward spiral so that each person working in a school nutrition program understands how everything he or she does is about being a better champion for the kids. Then, we need to spread that message to the public. School lunch today is not what it was decades ago. We want our communities to see that we offer healthy choices and are making a difference in the lives of our nation’s children for today—and for the future. We can be a part of changing our obesity-driven society. That means helping parents, too, by giving them tools for nutrition education to make better choices at home, especially about moderation. Parents will be a big piece of the success of our meal pattern implementation; they need to understand why we will require students to take a fruit or vegetable and why we are serving lowfat and fat-free milk. I’m also aware that a number of state associations are struggling. I believe that SNA can help them to be more of a viable support to their own members, and not just focused on day-today association management. SN: With more than 25 years of SNA membership behind you, you’re bound to have some fond memories. Any that you care to share? FORD: The Child Nutrition Industry Conference (CNIC) in January is my favorite, because it’s smaller and provides greater networking opportunities. My first was in Snowmass, Colo., in 1992. I still remember the keynote speaker’s presentation on shifting paradigms; it’s stuck with me forever. I always take away something from every meeting I attend. I also can remember where I was and who I was with when I first thought about becoming president of this Association. It was during ANC in Boston in 1993; two of my best friends and colleagues were sitting with me, and I found myself thinking about what it would take to be president, what skill levels and abilities I would need to be able to do that job. It’s been fun getting here! FLORIDA FITS SN: Tell us a little more about life outside of SNA and the school nutrition profession. FORD: My husband Don and I have been married for 33 years. He’s a salesman for a nuts and bolts company. A mutual friend introduced us, and we’ve pretty much been together since the night we met. In a lot of ways, we’ve grown up together. I moved for his career early on, and he moved for my career later. We have a partnership, not just a marriage. We don’t have children, but I have a nephew that we consider a son. We have a dog, Snickers, our 14-yearold Shih Tzu. She’s a spoiled princess. As a senior dog, she has some health challenges, but she’s still happy to see us. I like having that unconditional love from a pet. We like to cook, so we eat at home most nights. That’s really relaxing to us. We like to be outside. We live 13 miles from the beach and go as often as we can. We also go to our pool. We like walking in area parks and bird watching. Occasionally, we go to the theatre, and we spend time with a group of friends about once a month. We’re just really laidback, and the Florida lifestyle really appeals to us, although I sometimes question our decision to move here when the population quadruples in winter when the snowbirds come! SN: You’ve been pretty busy with SNA these past couple of years, and that pace is about to get even busier. Do you have anything you’re looking forward to on the horizon, when things go back to normal this time next year? FORD: Don and I are talking about this more and more, so it must be our reality—we haven’t been to the Florida Keys yet, so we’ve decided that once I’m done traveling as SNA president, that will be our first vacation trip. Beyond that, while I love traveling and the people I meet, I like to be home, too. I’ll be looking forward to a new normal that allows me to do some more community work. SN: At ANC in Denver last month, you introduced the STEPS Challenge, a new SNA personal wellness initiative, sponsored by Jennie-O (see page 56). What are some of your own challenges and successes in staying healthy? FORD: I’m probably not the world’s best role model, but I take a water aerobics class a couple of times per week, and I like to swim in our pool when the temperature’s right. I’ve realized, especially with the busy schedule of SNA’s Executive Team, that I have to be more mindful about ways to stay healthy and reduce stress. Fortunately, I have a fabulous staff, so when I’m away, I clearly don’t have to worry about things getting done on the homefront. I’m a planner, so if things really spiral out of control, I know I have to step back and take it a step at a time. SN: It sounds like you have developed a good perspective on how to handle all of your various priorities. Is there any advice that you wish you could go back and give to your younger self? FORD: If I had it to do over again, I’d take a different look at my personal health and wellness. I would take better care of myself at a younger age instead of trying to make that lifestyle change later. I didn’t grow up in a family that exercised, so trying to make that change as an older, middle-aged adult can be challenging. SN: And what advice would you give to would-be school nutrition professionals? FORD: This career gives you the opportunity to do multiple things and to impact the future. Every day is different. You’re helping children achieve more, helping parents, helping staff be more than they hoped they could be. This career allows you to grow continually. You’re never done. Cecily Walters is assistant editor of School Nutrition. Photos by Rick Brady. Photo on page 26 by EZ Events Photography. A Few of Sandra Ford’s Favorite Things ■ Favorite book: I like to read fiction by Danielle Steel, Nora Roberts and Fern Michaels. ■ Most “important” book: 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey ■ Favorite movie: “Eat Pray Love” ■ Favorite leisure activity: Walk on the beach ■ Favorite place I have visited: Nantucket, Mass. ■ Favorite meal to cook at home: Anything prepared on the grill ■ Favorite school subject: Math, especially algebra ■ Dream dinner guest: Chef Gordon Ramsay ■ If I could trade places with anyone in school nutrition for one day, it would be…: an industry member because I would like to learn more about marketing and “selling” our program. ■ One thing you don’t know about me: My heritage is 100% Scot. My mother was born in Scotland, and my father is first generation born in America. ■ The talent I would like to have is: To be able to play the piano. BONUS WEB CONTENT Bonus Web Content School Nutrition is making this profile of new SNA President Sandra Ford available in Spanish. If you or someone you know would like to read a Spanish translation of this article, you will find a link on the magazine’s Bonus Web Content Archives page on SNA’s website, www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazine bonuscontent. Contenido Adicional La School Nutrition a creado el perfil del nuevo Presidente de SNA, Sandra Ford, disponible en español. Si usted o alguien que usted conoce desea leer la traducción en español de este artículo, lo encontrará en el enlace en la página del Bonus Web Content en el sitio web de SNA, www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonuscontent.
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