By Mark Ward, Sr., PhD 2014-10-28 11:12:37
SNA honorees are rewarded for going the extra mile to improve service. Meet Brenda Thompson Current Title: Nutrition Services Worker City, State: Palm Springs, Calif. Nickname: “Bubbles” Profession You’d Choose If Not School Nutrition: Traveling fair exhibitor Bedside Book/ Magazine: People Dream Dinner Guest: Michelle Obama Hobbies: Tie dying When 2014 SNA Heart of the Program awardwinner Brenda Thompson began work in her first school cafeteria, “I had the attitude that I ‘just make food,’” she recalls. But when she relocated to a new city 10 years ago and began work at a new school district, her attitude started to change. Much of the credit for her shift in professional outlook and development, Thompson says, goes to the cafeteria site managers with whom she has served at Raymond Cree Middle School in Palm Springs, Calif., where Thompson is employed as a nutrition services worker. “One manager encouraged me to get involved in CSNA [California School Nutrition Association], attend my first state conference and earn my [SNA] Level I certificate,” Thompson reports. “Another manager was really supportive when I had ideas about [cafeteria] promotions.” Interactive Wellness Her national award recognizes just how impressively Thompson’s ideas continue to flow. For one recent promotion, she worked with her school’s library staff to launch the “Healthy Living Zip Code—90215” program. Using the numbers in the Los Angeles-area zip code, signage posted in both the library and cafeteria promoted: 9 hours of sleep, 0 sugary beverages, 2 hours maximum screen time, 1 hour of exercise and 5 daily servings of fruits and vegetables. Thompson also participates in the school’s annual science fair, creating her own displays. Once, a pile of sugar cubes dramatically represented the sugar a student consumes in a year of downing sweetened beverages. At another fair, students were invited to try on a 10-pound bag of goo to feel the firsthand impact of carrying extra pounds of fat. Once a week, cafeteria staffers become walking nutrition billboards by wearing T-shirts with a nutrition theme. Thompson typically leads such efforts, dressing up one year as a Halloween pumpkin to “scarefully” remind students about healthy eating habits. Yet, some of Thompson’s less-flashy initiatives are among her most effective. Participation in her school’s universal breakfast program rose 93% when Thompson, aided by her manager, introduced a satellite serving location that dispensed cold offerings. At lunch, consumption of several healthy menu items rose more than 10% after Thompson suggested the items be taken out of their original factory packaging and rewrapped in attractive colored paper. Kindness and Caring One of her ideas that has proven popular with students is Thompson’s “last to first” policy. She takes note of the student who was at the end of the line the previous day and invites them up front the next. By getting to know her students, Thompson finds out who is going through a tough time—at home or school— and can expedite service so they have extra time with friends at lunch. Thompson likewise takes notice of students who show up with broken eyeglasses, worn-out shoes or torn backpacks. Names are forwarded to the school guidance counselor, who can provide the children with aid through various government assistance programs. In the meantime, Thompson herself collects clothes for distribution to needy students. In caring for others, Thompson is giving back to the Southern California region in which she was raised. “Reaching out to the public is part of my DNA,” she explains. “Even before I was a teenager, I sold my mother’s crafts from door to door and at local fairs.” In time, she married, started a family and found a family-friendly job at her local school cafeteria operation. A few years later, the family moved out of the Los Angeles metro area and settled farther east in the foothills of the Santa Rosa Mountains. Soon, Thompson was hired to her current school nutrition position and since, she has advanced her professional development through CSNA and local chapter involvement, ServSafe certification and a recent 16-week course in restaurant management and operations. “The best thing I’ve learned is to treat our customers with respect,” she says. “Give every student a warm greeting and a smile. You never know the impact that can make.” Meet Gail Gramling Current Title: Nutrition Services Supervisor City, state: Torrance, Calif. Profession You’d Choose If Not School Nutrition: Nurse Bedside Book/Magazine: Better Homes and Gardens Someone you admire: Lynette Rock (boss) Top of Your Bucket List: Travel the world on a cruise ship Hobbies: Karaoke, running Two years ago when overseeing school meal operations at North High School, in Torrance, Calif., Gail Gramling noticed that her cafeteria was popping up on Yelp.com, a website that publishes customer comments about local businesses. Restaurant reviews are quite common, but it was unusual for a school meals operation to appear on Yelp—and comments for North High were less than flattering. “Our program had its own customer reviews that complained about our ‘cranky’ staff,” Gramling recounts. That prompted Gramling, winner of the national 2014 SNA Louise Sublette Award of Excellence in School Nutrition, to ask why, in a school of 2,100 students, with nearly half qualifying for free and reduced-priced meals, her team served only 900 meals per day. She soon realized that many of her own staff held attitudes that the students being served “had to” eat in the cafeteria, anyway. Light Bulb Moment Such realizations got Gramling thinking. By the start of the 2013-14 school year, those thoughts had crystallized into an ambitious customer service project. Its key elements, however, were simple: Survey students before, during and after the campaign; conduct monthly staff trainings; induce staff to buy into better service; and recognize improved employee performance. “With any project, you need a way to measure success,” Gramling notes. Thus, she set a goal of increasing meal participation by 3% between October 2013 and January 2014, as compared to the same months of the previous year. When school kicked off in Fall 2013, Gramling swung into action. First, students were surveyed about their attitudes: How is the food? What do you think of the dining area? Who is your favorite lunch lady? Who is the least favorite? “We surveyed students while they were in line and while they sat at tables. And we surveyed kids who weren’t eating with us, while they congregated for lunch in areas just outside the cafeteria,” recounts Gramling. A preliminary survey confirmed her initial impressions. “About half the students liked our food well enough,” she says. But of the 22-employee workforce, students liked only one or two of the staff members.” Armed with such data, Gramling pressed ahead with plans to “keep our menus pretty much the same as before and instead to emphasize staff training in customer service.” Next, with the help of her boss, Torrance Unified School District Nutrition Services Director Lynette Rock, she invited an inspirational guest speaker to keynote the operation’s annual inservice training. She requested her team members apply student feedback in devising fresh ideas for increasing participation. The challenge had a ripple effect. “About 80% of our staff weren’t dialoguing with students,” Gramling reports. “So I put the ball in their court and invited them to come up with their own [student-prompted] ideas.” The result: a shift in meal-service focus from speed to interaction. Sweet Success By October 2013, the project was in full swing. Monthly training sessions featured lesson plans and handouts were developed with the help of various SNA resources. Students were surveyed periodically to gauge overall customer satisfaction. Staff members were recognized with monthly “Shiny Apple” and “Golden Apple” awards as student survey scores climbed. “Morale improved—and turnover declined—because employees felt more appreciated,” Gramling states. “Not just because they got awards, but because they developed better relations with students.” The data backs up the perceptions. For each month of the project, meal participation rose between 5% and 7% compared to the same month the previous year, well exceeding the 3% project goal. For Gramling, the payoff may be incidental to the rewards of the actual training. She joined the Torrance Unified School District in 1997 as a part-time foodservice worker. In recent years, she has served as president of her local SNA chapter, become active in the California School Nutrition Association and conducted training sessions at annual state conferences. “Training is my passion,” Gramling asserts. “I get excited about empowering people to be more successful—and to get more satisfaction—in serving our kids.” Mark Ward is a freelance writer in Victoria, Texas.
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