By Mark Ward, Sr., PhD 2014-06-12 18:20:32
School nutrition directors in large and small districts reflect on shaping successful programs. Meet Jessica Shelly Current Title: Foodservice Director City/State: Cincinnati, Ohio Bedside Book/Magazine: Carry On, Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton Top of Your Bucket List: Set foot in every continent (“Four down, three to go!”) Place You’d Like to Visit: Galapagos Islands Dream Dinner Guest: Walt Disney Hobbies: Traveling judge for dance competitions Upon the retirement of the foodservice director for Cincinnati (Ohio) Public Schools in 2009, district officials prepared to outsource a program that was operating at a deficit and lagging behind benchmarks set by the Council of the Great City Schools, a national coalition of large, urban school districts. “Our district administration was ready to end self-operation and go a different direction,” recalls Jessica Shelly, then an area supervisor for the foodservice program and responsible for training and compliance. In response, Shelly made an 11th-hour plea. “I went to my boss, the chief operations officer, and asked for a year to turn the program around,” she says. She got the green light—and the appointment—along with a mandate: “to get our Key Performance Indicators up to Council standards and get the program out of deficit.” As Shelly admits, “We had a ways to go!” Forward Facing She hit the ground running. “We ditched the [former] menu, stopped a la carte sales and increased entrée choices. I went on a grant-writing frenzy and got $2.5 million to put salad bars in every school. We installed ‘spice stations,’ so that kids could customize their choices and feel in control. And to turn around administrative perceptions about our food, I showcased our new menus at board meetings,” she recounts. Response from Cincinnati’s 35,000 students at 53 schools was swift. “Right away,” Shelly relates, “we saw students coming back to school lunch or trying it for the first time.” In a single school year, the half-million-dollar deficit turned into a whopping $4.5 million surplus, with lunch and breakfast participation rates rapidly climbing toward Council standards. Today, Shelly’s operation annually runs a positive fund balance of more than $8 million, monies that allow her team to continue its innovations. For example, in 2011, the department modernized its original point-of-sale computer system. The result: More accurate data, food ordering that was more in line with actual needs and lowered expenses, even as participation increased. Two years ago, through a grant from the American Association of School Administrators and the Walmart Foundation, 19 vending machines were installed in Cincinnati high schools to disburse reimbursable breakfasts. Participation in the morning meal soon doubled to 30%. And those salad bars—purchased in 2010 through a Fuel Up to Play 60 grant from the American Dairy Association Mideast—actually perform double duty as grab ‘n’ go breakfast kiosks. In fact, grab ‘n’ go proved so popular that the concept recently has been adapted for lunch. This year, Shelly and her team are prepping an expanded summer feeding initiative. “We’ll still have our 108 feeding sites, but we’re retrofitting five buses with grills, so we can bring kids a mobile summer barbecue!” she reports. The Perfect Fit Shelly has come a long way since her own youth, when she looked upon eating school lunch as a social stigma. At Miami University of Ohio, she studied to be a veterinarian, but uncertain of her calling, after graduation in 1995 she took a city job in Cincinnati as a restaurant inspector and ServSafe trainer. Open to opportunities outside city government, she earned an MBA from the University of Cincinnati in order to get a better grasp of business operations. A chance to combine her interests arrived when Cincinnati Public Schools hired Shelly to supervise staff training and program compliance. “Immediately, I knew that I’d found my niche, a place where I could make a difference in kids’ lives,” she recalls. Today she juggles her job responsibilities with volunteer service on SNA’s Member Services Committee, as well as working as a contract trainer for the state education department’s child nutrition program—plus all the stress and gratification of being the mother of 7-year-old triplets! Despite her jam-packed schedule, Shelly always makes sure to schedule a school visit each Monday. “Eating lunch with kids and getting their feedback inspires me and often gives me new ideas,” she observes. “In a large district, it can be easy to focus on budgets, media relations, politics or whatever. But we can’t forget why we’re here in the first place!” Meet Marsha Wartick Current Title: Foodservice Supervisor City/State: Ronan, Mont. Bedside Book/Magazine: Birds & Blooms magazine Someone You Admire: John F. Kennedy Top of Your Bucket List: Travel to Ireland and Scotland Dream Dinner Guest: Dr. Seuss Hobbies: Gardening, photography, crafts, cooking With four schools that enroll a total of 1,450 students, “We’re actually considered a large district in Montana!” chuckles Marsha Wartick, foodservice director for Ronan (Mont.) School District #30. Compared to districts nationwide, Wartick knows that her operation— with 17 staff serving daily meals on a $400,000 annual budget—might seem small to others. “But it’s a real strength for our program that we can be so much more personable,” she asserts. “I know everyone— students, staff, parents, farmers, even delivery people and sales representatives.” In fact, when Wartick introduced fresh fruits and vegetables for breakfast, the offerings made news both in Ronan and statewide. Small District, Big Hearts The spirit of community and cooperation was never more apparent than last January, when Wartick was rushed to the local emergency room. A rare liver disease nearly claimed her life and, at this writing, she continues chemotherapy and dialysis treatments. “But my staff was ready to fill the gaps and take on more responsibility,” she reports. Ronan is a small district in the heart of the Flathead Indian reservation, and Wartick has worn many hats, often working behind the scenes. Her staff had been unaware, for example, that she routinely rose early to help unload food deliveries into the district’s central kitchen. “But once the staff realized the needs, they didn’t hesitate to pitch in,” she states. Wartick’s heart also was warmed by the stacks of cards and letters she received from Ronan children. “We had to shut down our Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program for three weeks,” she relates, “and the kids even wrote me about how much they missed their fresh produce!” Each morning for breakfast, though, whole fruits or soufflé cups are attractively served from a fresh fruit bar. Breakfast participation now tops 500 students, while the number who take fruit each day has increased more than six-fold. Lunch participation has jumped since cafeterias added new serving lines that give all Ronan students—including the 71% who qualify for free or reduced-price meals— equal opportunities to choose among many different menu component options. Food waste from the 1,150 lunches served each day has dropped by two-thirds. Maximizing her budget, Warwick uses USDA Foods entitlement whenever and wherever possible, such as the afterschool snack program, serving fresh produce with banana bread and homemade muffins made from leftover fruit and commodity flour. Setting a Structure for Success “We avoid the mindset of being ‘just a small district’ by managing our money well enough to get the things we need and that help to empower our staff,” advises Wartick. Then, too, operating a small program “cuts down our overhead and gives us a lot of flexibility.” Wartick optimizes that flexibility by hiring and retaining those who are excited about school nutrition. “I always ask prospective hires if they enjoy being around kids,” she says. Also, “I try to keep [my staff] in situations where they’re comfortable and can be successful,” she explains, “and encourage them by listening to their ideas, addressing their problems and giving them a sense of program ownership and a feeling of making a difference.” Her own commitment to the community goes deep. Born and raised on a cattle ranch near Ronan, Wartick quickly developed an interest in cooking. Later, she managed local restaurants and catering operations for 20 years, until applying for her present position in 2000. “Working for the school district was more secure and offered regular hours,” she recounts, “but I had to be quick in learning the job. I had nobody to fall back on. And our central kitchen was condemned, so I had to work with the architects to build another.” Her new employment also required that Wartick begin work toward SNA certification. Then and now, “the Association’s publications and resources, and annual state conferences, have been essential for me,” she says. Today, Wartick is making new adjustments with her work in light of her physical challenges. But the community spirit around her is carrying the day. “I think about…how blessed I am to work in a district where everyone’s lives can touch one another,” she says. Mark Ward is a freelance writer in Victoria, Texas.
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