Mark Ward 2012-12-22 15:56:52
Meet Jodi Risse In January 2008, Jodi Risse recently had been named supervisor of food and nutrition services for Anne Arundel County (Md.) Public Schools. “My passion,” she recalls, “was to get the word out and change the image of our program.” Her vision took shape almost immediately, as cafeterias opened the spring semester with a contemporary new vibe. A month later, Risse (and the rest of the country) learned the startling news that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) had ordered the largest recall of beef in U.S. history. The 143 million pounds of recalled meat, produced by California’s Westland/ Hallmark Meat Packing Company, was the equivalent of two hamburgers for every man, woman and child in America. And for Risse, the story was only beginning. Setting the Record Straight Anne Arundel County is the home of Annapolis, the Maryland state capital, and located in the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan corridor. Suddenly, Risse found herself a “go-to” expert for national, state and local media filing reports on potential the impacts of the Westland Beef recall. And her expert handling of the situation in her district was cited (along with several programmatic achievements) in a nomination that earned her a 2009 FAME Silver Special Achievement Award. The positive “spin” from that initial media baptism-by-fire continues today. To name just one recent example, Risse went on record last year, commenting on the “pink slime” controversy that made national headlines. And even when food scares are not in the news, Risse reports, “I still do at least one media interview per month— sometimes more.” Today, she continues to field inquiries about the new school meal patterns mandated by the Healthy, Hunger- Free Kids Act of 2010. Reporters come to Risse not because she and her department are “pushing” stories to state and local media, but because “we’ve established ourselves as experts,” she notes. “Partnerships with different agencies— from the state education department to our local parks and recreation department—give us visibility,” Risse credits, but she’s zealous about using various communications forums to reach different target audiences. For example, “We’ve used the local cable TV public access channel to produce a biweekly nutrition education show,” she reveals. And with her “Food 4 Thought” program airing three times daily, Risse sometimes “gets stopped in the parking lot at Wal-Mart when people recognize me as the host.” Unity in Community Risse also is part of the SNA Spokesperson Network, comprised of more than 50 school nutrition professionals in major media markets who are available for press interviews. “Having a nationwide network like this,” explains Risse, “helps SNA to get out a unified message on ‘hot’ topics in school nutrition.” Experience has taught Risse that successful media relations come from being “truthful, transparent, accessible, positive and professional.” She advises other directors to “let the media come into your cafeterias and kitchen to see what you do. There are misconceptions about school meals—but we have the advantage that the public is interested in what we do. So, be willing to talk to the media—whatever the issue—and not just for ‘positive’ stories.” Risse’s own positive spin on food and nutrition started in childhood with regular family dinners. Fresh fruits and vegetables were staple fare and, in time, encouraged by her parents, she acquired an interest in dietetics. Following her 1987 graduation from Marywood College, in Scranton, Pa., Risse became a registered dietitian and joined what is now Morrison Healthcare Food Services. “But after a few years,” Risse recounts, “I found myself wanting to be on the proactive, preventive side [of health] and to go into school nutrition.” She got her wish in 1994, when hired by Anne Arundel County Public Schools as a field supervisor. Soon after, she earned a master’s degree in marketing from the University of Maryland University College. When her boss retired in 2007, Risse was tapped to direct the program. She affirms, “The drive to get out the word and create positive perceptions about school nutrition is still my passion!” Meet Cindy Brooks It’s only recently that Cindy Brooks has been able to talk about a painful childhood memory. Now serving as foodservice director for Seymour (Conn.) Public Schools, she recalls her earliest experiences with school lunch. “Growing up, we didn’t have much money,” she recounts. “So, my brother and I would go separately into the lunch line. He would tell the cashier his sister had the money and I would say my brother had the money, though neither of us did.” The discomfort of that particular childhood memory, however, has infused Brooks with “a real heart for all my students who don’t have the money for a nutritious school meal.” Today, she shares her passion not only with Seymour students and families, but with a wider audience through her participation in the SNA Spokesperson Network and other opportunities to promote school nutrition. Directors and managers don’t need be located near major media markets like New York to enjoy positive press coverage. “Start locally in your district,” she advises. “Go to PTA and Board of Education meetings— there’s almost always a local reporter in attendance. When you make a presentation, it takes just one reporter to pick up on a story. Before you know it, the story grows ‘legs’ and leads to more coverage.” Media Maven Involvement in SNA and state associations also is a boon to good media relations. “When I talk to reporters, I’m not ‘just’ Cindy Brooks,” she relates. “As a SNA member, I have the credibility of being one of 55,000 professionals across the country who are experts in school nutrition.” That credibility opens doors, such as the family magazine media tour Brooks takes each spring of New Yorkbased consumer publications such as Good Housekeeping and Parents. SNA’s public relations agency works to set up appointments between Brooks and editors who are working on back-to-school articles to appear later in the summer. (SNA’s Connecticut state affiliate, SNA CT, also has hired a p.r. firm to actively pitch its members and issues to media.) “We tell writers what’s happening in school nutrition,” Brooks explains, “and focus on ‘hot’ topics in hopes that they’ll ‘bite’ [at a particular] story.” Using cutting-edge topics to gain media coverage, she suggests, can work in any school district. Brooks’ involvement in media relations requires time—as did her recently concluded two-year term as SNA Public Policy and Legislation Committee chair and her 1996-97 term as SNA CT president. “But the time you spend on behalf of your profession—whether it’s media relations or serving on a committee—gives you a lot in return. I’ve gained knowledge and contacts that directly benefit me and my program,” she affirms. Journey to Success Brooks’ journey from standing in school lunch lines to supervising them has been both serendipitous and rewarding. She married after high school, raised three children and, after becoming single again, waitressed for many years to make ends meet. One day in 1985, she applied at a restaurant and was interviewed by a man named Pete, who tended the bar at night—while his day job was directing foodservice operations for two local school districts. When Pete needed someone to help sell school snacks, he offered Cindy the job. Pete, a committed SNA member, quickly saw Cindy’s potential and encouraged her to apply for a cafeteria manager position in another school district. She got the job, joined the Association—and three years later was hired to direct a small program of her own. A year later, she learned of an opening in Seymour and jumped at the chance to lead a larger program. Throughout her school nutrition career, Pete continued to be a mentor—and much more. He and Cindy started dating—and for the last 17 years they have enjoyed being Pete and Cindy Brooks. Through her 23 years at Seymour, Brooks is especially proud of “our variety—about six entrées every day—and our quality.” This has garnered her program an enviable 78% participation rate among the district’s 2,400 students. Even more, her program’s success—and the attention it receives from students, parents, the community and the media— has given Brooks a platform to make a wider difference for school nutrition.
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