Patricia L. Fitzgerald 2013-05-02 05:21:24
All across the United States, SY 2012-13 is winding down—and you’d be hardpressed to find anyone working in school nutrition who isn’t glad to see it in their rear view. For most school districts, even those that could claim being ahead of the curve, implementation of the new federal meal pattern for school lunch was a difficult transition. Participation fell. Costs rose. Frustrations were widespread. And more big changes are ahead. The new meal pattern for school breakfast. Changes to nutrition standards for a la carte service and other competitive food offerings. Despite such enormous challenges, few school nutrition operators are in anything resembling open revolt. They’re sticking with the federal programs, sticking with their jobs. They’ve earned their 6-cent certification and are looking forward, some with matter-of-fact resignation, but most with enthusiasm. Why? Because there have always been two constants in this business: change and kids. This isn’t the job for the changeadverse. Every day is a roller-coaster, every year brings new customers. For every new parent or principal to educate, there’s a new ally to be won over. For every new regulatory challenge, there are new products and solutions. For every new obstacle, there are new initiatives and opportunities. And that’s why so many operators love what they do and embrace the changes that come with the territory. School Nutrition recently spoke with five directors who consider the new meal pattern implementation just another bullet point checked off a long list of professional and personal transitions. Despite varying tenures in school nutrition, different district demographics and diverse goals, they share a common attitude toward change: Bring it on! Doris Demers Child Nutrition Director Oyster River Cooperative School District Durham, New Hampshire In his ode to fatherhood, “Beautiful Boy,” the incomparable John Lennon observed, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” In reflecting on her winding path to leading the school nutrition operation at Oyster River Cooperative School District, Durham, N.H., Child Nutrition Director Doris Demers says she takes Lennon’s perceptive wisdom to heart. In a quick recap, Demers spent nine years as a manager before making the move, in 2003, to the top spot with her first district director job in York, Maine. In 2007, upon the retirement of the director in a neighboring district, Demers found herself directing operations for two separate systems. Although it was a rewarding professional challenge, it was very time-consuming, and she found herself repeatedly having to sacrifice projects that she wanted to launch in favor of more-pressing tasks. When the director position at Oyster River, just over the border, became available, she applied— but the job went to another candidate. “It was not meant to be,” she says. Knowing that her lack of a college degree was one reason she was passed over, in April 2012, she made the difficult decision to resign from her double-district job (“It was kind of scary”) and go back to school full-time to complete her associate’s degree in dietetics. She signed up for five classes—and then learned that the Oyster River position was vacant once more. Although a little apprehensive from the last rejection, “I dropped off my application on my way to the airport” for SNA’s Annual National Conference in Denver. The next weeks were a whirlwind. One interview led to a meeting with the superintendent, and, literally the day before she had to make the financial commitment for her college coursework, she accepted the new position. “I had to immediately attend a Farm to School Conference, then fly to Michigan to get trained on a new POS system and then implement it three days later,” she recounts. A mere eight months later, Demers has survived the participation fallout of the new nutrition standards (“kids don’t always accept healthier choices”); earned her 6-cent certification; launched an offer-versus-serve program at the district’s two elementary schools; received a grant for four salad bars; made connections with area farmers to take advantage of local monies earmarked specifically for farm-toschool procurement; given presentations on school lunch to middle school students; brought in a chef to teach her team how to work with fresh herbs (coming from school gardens); won a Facebook contest for a free logo design; and, oh yeah, started her college coursework at nearby University of Durham. “It’s a dream district,” Demers credits, citing terrific support from the administration, teachers and her new staff. She’s eager to identify new ways to drive participation—and to use current farmto- school funding to build a sustainable approach for the long haul. Demers says she’s also up for the ongoing marketing challenge of defeating misperceptions about school lunch. Despite a content-rich website and Facebook page (www.facebook.com/ OysterRiverChildNutrition), she still encounters surprised parents and teachers. “I love when they call me, so I have that opportunity to tell the real story and turn them around—gaining an ally,” she notes. Demers certainly has weathered an unusual amount of change in the last year, but she remains undaunted: “The only thing I’m afraid of is my next chemistry test!” Bryan Young Director of Nutrition Services Campbell County School District Gillette, Wyoming “Local boy makes good.” That’s how one school nutrition advocate characterizes Bryan Young. Born and raised in Gillette, Wyo., he attended college in Billings, Mont., but eventually moved back to his hometown to raise a family. After working at a local restaurant, he saw an advertisement seeking a director of nutrition services in his very own Campbell County School District. “Two Aprils ago,” at the tender age of 27, Young got the job. To manage 22 schools serving some 8,600 students, Young had a steep learning curve. “Just learning the district’s processes: work orders, budget codes, policies, hiring. Procurement is crazy,” he reflects. A central production kitchen supplies 15 schools in Gillette, while other outlying sites prep their own meals. “The sheer volume of food that we produce daily...head-spinning. It’s like a huge catering job every single day,” he says. The Wyoming state agency staff was a big help, as was the district’s healthy schools coordinator and his own supervisor, he credits. He also relied on the expertise and passion of his newly inherited team and the support of the school board. Such reinforcement was critical, as right away, in his very first year, Young’s priority was to make “drastic” menu and production changes, reducing the volume of processed foods and emphasizing more scratch cooking—soups, chilis, casseroles— and requiring more staff training. Although the transition was “not without bumps in the road,” he reports, “for the most part everyone was on board.” Young’s team, once they started cooking and offering a better product, “take satisfaction in seeing the kids enjoy a good meal. If the kids are eating, the ladies are happy.” And so are the parents, teachers and school administration. Under-30, first-time school nutrition director. New menus and production processes. New regulations. That’s a pretty full plate for the first two years on the job. But Young fits right in with so many of his school nutrition peers across the country in taking on even more, especially when it comes to leading the way in child health and wellness. • He was the engine behind getting the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable program fully launched throughout the district. • In collaboration with the district’s health coordinator, Young conducted a district-wide event promoting school breakfast and International Walk to School Month in October. Participating kids, parents and teachers earned points for phys ed equipment, as well as bikes given away to students in a random drawing. “Seeing the kids’ reactions to winning a bike? It still gives me goosebumps to talk about it,” recounts Young. • Next year, he will launch a “breakfast- after-first-period” program to boost participation in secondary schools. It’s hard to believe that Young manages all this without relying on a calendar— something “my wife and secretary give me a hard time” about. And while some days are focused on “putting out fires,” Young tries to set an example to his colleagues and staff by always being friendly and positive, no matter what. He closes his interview with School Nutrition by referencing an inspirational quote that made headlines last winter from a fan letter sent to the playoff-bound Baltimore Ravens: “The only disability in life is a bad attitude.” Jeannie Allgood Director of Nutrition Services Waukee Community School District Waukee, Iowa Jeannie Allgood leads the school nutrition operation for the single fastest-growing district in Iowa. Waukee Community School District is adding between 450 and 650 students every year. This year’s graduating senior class is considerably smaller than its kindergarten program, creating a “pig in the snake effect.” Development activity throughout the area is on the rise. The district administration is taking a comprehensive look at how to provide capacity beyond its 12 schools and maintain educational values. Allgood has been director of nutrition services for 16 years. She managed the operation mostly on her own, with only the support of two supervisors and an administrative assistant. But with rising enrollments, those days are over. “We have a new director of HR for the district who told me that I needed to be visionary; to start delegating so that I focus on looking ahead,” she recounts, conceding that it was a bona fide “wake-up call for all of us in the district.” To seize the new day, Allgood is right in the middle of a major reorganization of her department, squeezing time for a short chat with School Nutrition between interviews for new hires. She created the position of assistant director (promoting from within, after a search featuring both internal and external candidates). Two other new positions—nutrition operations manager and nutrition administration manager—will split duties for human resources, training, operations, menu planning and more. It’s all in an effort to stop “micromanaging too much,” admits Allgood, and “to develop our site supervisors to empower them to make decisions and increase our team professionalism.” This will involve more training and development, along with an emphasis on SNA certification. While Allgood says she has a personality type that “isn’t supposed to like change,” she’s always looking for ways for her department to go above and beyond. “I like to be innovative,” she notes. Allgood balances that spirit with a healthy dose of pragmatism. The new regulations proved “a very difficult change for my supervisors. But I would tell them, ‘It’s okay. We will make mistakes. It’s a learning process, and we’ll fix it.’” With her department’s reorganization, Allgood faces some major changes in how she operates. While she can’t pinpoint one or two specific things she will find most freeing to delegate, she’s looking forward to having more time to “do a little bit of everything” and to developing an “effective, efficient, professional team.” Her greatest fear about the coming months? “Having staff that can’t deal with change.” Bradley Barlow, MS, RD Director of Operations Bay St. Louis-Waveland School District Bay St. Louis, Mississippi Not many school nutrition directors come to the profession right out of college. But for Brad Barlow, a dietetic internship through the University of Southern Mississippi found him crossing paths with SNA Past President Mary Hill, executive director of Jackson (Miss.) Public Schools. And “she really made an impression,” he recounts. Suitably inspired by the managerial opportunities of K-12 and with degrees in hand, he applied at several districts, and Bay St. Louis-Waveland welcomed him with open arms. Although that was just six years ago, Barlow is now two years into a new position within the district. As director of operations, he oversees many support service departments, in addition to child nutrition. “Essentially, everything that’s not instructional,” he notes. Within child nutrition, Barlow relies on the complementary strengths of his assistant and chef, Craig Ferguson, but it’s clear that his passion and vision for school nutrition is undiluted by competing demands for the hours of his work day. Because Barlow does have a very long and diverse to-do list. It’s been eight years since Hurricane Katrina, but the district continues to struggle to recover from the devastation. “I’m talking to you a block from the beach,” Barlow reports, providing context for many of the ensuing changes in Bay St. Louis. “Before Katrina, we had six schools; three locations were completely wiped off the map, right down to the the foundation. Six hundred students moved away and never came back.” Today, five locations serve 2,000 students. Two schools are grant-funded, state-of-the art sites (“much better facilities than before the storm”). But others are in need of upgrades beyond the basic post-storm reconstruction. Major dining facility renovations are on the agenda, because Barlow has discovered that “every menu change, every incentive to get nutrition to our children has proven less successful than renovating the building they eat in.” He cites the district’s flagship facility, boasting a recently renovated school cafeteria, which resembles a sports pub, with Corian booths, large-screen TVs, bright colors and an overall atmosphere that occasionally frustrates the principal, “because we sometimes can’t get kids to leave the cafeteria.” Participation at that site rose 40% after the renovation, he reports. It’s clear that Barlow relishes the opportunity to run his small school district like a small corporation. “We do a daylong strategic-planning workshop annually. There are follow-up forums quarterly; we don’t wait a year to find out that something didn’t work or that someone dropped the ball.” He regularly hosts college interns, valuing the fresh eyes they bring to his program, helping the team identify shortfalls and achievements. (“If you want to grow, having a relationship with a local university is key.”) Barlow also provides each of his site managers with productivity measures at monthly meetings; each receives a portfolio documenting the performance of their site. This not only establishes accountability, but it bolsters professional pride, he asserts. “One manager was overcome by the realization that she was managing a half-million-dollar program every year,” he recounts. This philosophy is at the center of Barlow’s approach to successful changes in child nutrition. When hiring or promoting new managerial staff, “We evaluate them every two weeks for the first six months. That might be a lot,” he concedes, “but we don’t want to see complacency or being close-minded to change. We tell them, ‘We’re hiring you to be the next child nutrition director someday.’” Paul Schmid, SNS Director of Food Services East Stroudsburg Area School District East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania It’s been four years since Paul Schmid, SNS, joined the East Stroudsburg (Pa.) Area School District as its foodservices director. That’s enough time for the “novelty” of a new district to wear off and allow for clear-eyed comparisons with former positions—notably, Schmid’s 18-year tenure heading up the child nutrition operation of the School District of Philadelphia. What’s the verdict? “I feel like I’m waking up every day in a dream— it’s so great,” he attests. “It’s really a lot of fun.” East Stroudsburg has 10 schools. Philadelphia has more than 300. In his current job, Schmid gets into “every school every week. But in Philly, there were some schools I just never made it to, even with the best intentions.” He describes his former position as being akin to “an orchestra leader,” managing a staff of 1,500 and delegating many responsibilities to supervisors. (Still, his achievements in Philadelphia earned him a 2003 FAME Silver Star Leadership award.) But Schmid enjoys the “looser” environment he’s found in rural Pennsylvania. “The politics are not as severe as you’d find in the big city. I have a great boss who respects us for what we know. We can use our creative edges.” And Schmid is doing a lot of just that. He initiated a chef-in-the-schools program years before the White House launched Chefs Move to Schools (“’Chelly and Barry stole my idea!”). He reached out to a local restaurant chef who volunteers time to teach 4th- and 5th-grade students to prepare healthy snacks. Schmid’s also a farm-to-school advocate, developing a program to procure items “first from farmers in our own county, then secondary Pennsylvania farms.” Last year’s menu featured “Farm Fresh” tomatoes, apples, broccoli, green beans, potatoes, corn and garlic. Another welcome change in his smaller district: “Last year, I was in classrooms 12 days, teaching about food, sanitation, career paths, recipe conversions and school meals,” he reports. And there’s no denying the inherent small district benefits of less bureaucracy and fewer meetings. While Schmid finds the “damn stupid” meal pattern regulations “put a crimp in our fun,” he earned his 6-cent certification by November. “It helped that on certain things like whole grains and fruits and vegetables, we were ahead of the curve,” he explains, also crediting his staff, “who aren’t going to be negative” about the changes. And he concedes that he’s had his share of regulatory challenges in both his current and former school districts. “Both have real positives,” he concludes. “The parallel is running both as a business and keeping a positive bottom line.” And, “You have to have fun.”
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