By Mark Ward, Sr., PhD 2015-01-05 19:36:04
On opposite coasts, Portland school nutrition directors focus on going local. Meet Gitta Grether-Sweeney Current Title: Director of Nutrition Services City, State: Portland, Oregon Profession You’d Choose If Not School Nutrition: Food editor Bedside Book/Magazine: Food & Wine, Edible Portland, Fine Cooking People You Admire: Sonia Sotomayor; Portland Superintendent Carole Smith Top of Your Bucket List: Take a tour of Italy Dream Dinner Guest: Ina Garten, Food Network’s Barefoot Contessa” “This is a ‘foodie’ town. Since families are sophisticated about food, our program must always be at its best.” Thus, both challenges and opportunities come with the territory for Gitta Grether-Sweeney, SNS, nutrition services director for Portland (Ore.) Public Schools. For example, “Providing high-quality, nutritious meals for discriminating customers can drive up food costs,” she explains. “So we’ve got to make sure our budget goes into creating food our students need and want to eat, rather than food that ends up being wasted.” This challenge, however, comes with an opportunity. “Oregon is so rich in agriculture that we now procure almost a third of our food from local sources,” she reports. When her department’s farm-to-school initiative was launched nine years ago, the goal was to serve “Local Lunch” once a month. Today, Oregon fare is served daily. Positive Portland (Oregon) If Portlanders demand the best, they are also generous in their support. “Because of the changes we’ve made, we get a lot of support from the community and the school board,” says Grether-Sweeney. One facet of the operation offers a striking illustration of generational change. When Grether-Sweeney was hired in 2003 as assistant director, the department was preparing to close its central kitchen. During the 1980s, the facility, one of the first in the nation, helped the program lower its food costs and survive competition from vending machines and other on- and off-campus sources. Beginning in the 1990s, the cost of Portland urban living forced many families into the suburbs. As enrollments declined and city schools were consolidated throughout the 2000s, the central kitchen actually hampered innovation and change. “Closing the kitchen gave us more flexibility,” recounts Grether-Sweeney, who was named director in 2010. “Greater menu variety and our farm-to-school emphasis are two important results of that flexibility—and both have increased our participation rates.” Across the USA Grether-Sweeney’s journey to Portland took a circuitous route. “As a child, I moved from Rochester, N.Y., to San Antonio, Texas,” she recounts. “Since I loved cooking from a young age, my dad tried a unique way to help me overcome the culture shock. He told me to think of enchiladas like lasagna. They’re both topped with a tomato sauce!” In time, Grether-Sweeney became accustomed to salsa and other Southwestern culinary delights. Later, her 1979 enrollment in Texas A&M University proved a turning point in her life. “My freshman year, I didn’t know what I wanted to study or what career I wanted. And then, on top of that confusion, I was diagnosed with diabetes,” she recounts. Once again, her father offered advice. “He said, ‘You love to cook and are always in the kitchen.’ At the same time, I was being forced to learn about diets because of my diabetes,” Grether-Sweeney remembers. Her path started to come into focus. A 1983 bachelor’s degree in food science and technology was followed by a 1986 master’s degree in dietetics, along with her registered dietitian credential. That year, Grether-Sweeney saw a help-wanted ad that intrigued her. “My only exposure in college to school nutrition was a half-hour guest lecture,” she says. “But when I saw a local school district needed a foodservice director, I was struck by the possibilities.” She got the job and, over the next 16 years, led nutrition programs for three Texas school districts. In 2003, after her husband took a job in Portland, Grether-Sweeney began job-hunting again. “Getting hired as the assistant director in Portland was great,” she states. “It was my first experience in a major-city school district and my boss, Kristy Obbink, helped me learn all facets of the operation. Also, she was open to my ideas.” When Obbink retired in 2010 and Grether-Sweeney was named her successor, the transition proceeded without a hitch. Five years later, Grether-Sweeney is thinking about her own legacy. Serving as a member of SNA’s Public Policy & Legislation Committee, she says, has stoked a desire “to be active in advocating for school nutrition and for the needs of our kids. Whatever my future holds, advocacy will be a part of it.” Meet Ronald Adams Current Title: Foodservice Director City, State: Portland, Maine Profession You’d Choose If Not School Nutrition: Farming Someone You Admire: Former Maine school nutrition director Helen Rankin Dream Dinner Guest: Harry Potter character Dobby the Elf Favorite Subject in School: Science Hobbies: Gardening, livestock, biking, skiing, beachcombing Maine’s largest city, Portland, is full of surprises. Fifty languages are spoken in Portland Public Schools, notes Foodservice Director Ronald Adams, pointing to the city’s status as a refugee resettlement area. “We’re also proud of being one of the few places in America where there’s been an increase in farmers, because agricultural land is still affordable,” he adds. In fact, six years after Adams arrived in Portland, farm-to-school procurement for the school meals operation has risen from 10,000 pounds a year to a projected 200,000 pounds in SY 2014-15. All told, more than one-third of his program’s food dollars go to local sources. Yet Adams was originally drawn to Portland because of another somewhat surprising fact. “There’s a lot of fine dining here,” he reports. “So, as a young man in the restaurant trade, I saw Portland as an opportunity.” The Promise of Portland (Maine) Adams had spent four years in food manufacturing after earning a 1983 bachelor’s in food science from The Pennsylvania State University. Upon hearing from relatives about Portland’s restaurant scene, he decided to give Maine a try. The benefits of a family-friendly schedule pushed Adams in a new direction. For five years he oversaw nutrition services at local childcare centers that catered to Portland’s low-income families. In 1996 he accepted a position in child nutrition, this time as foodservice director for the school district in Yarmouth, Maine. “I was attracted by the potential to impact the kids of a whole community,” Adams explains. Two years later, the director’s job opened up in Gorham, Maine, and Adams took the opportunity for a position even closer to his Portland home. Then, in 2009 came a chance he could not pass up. “Portland is the largest school district in Maine,” he states, “and up to that point, there had only been two foodservice directors in its history. The first one had been there 34 years and the second was retiring after 32 years. Who knew when the job would ever be open again?” Made in the USA Adams was hired with a mandate to boost food quality and increase local procurement. Another challenge loomed: “In my third year,” he recounts, “I was told our annual subsidy of half a million dollars was ending.” Adams cut staff by 30% over three years. Conditions were tough for improving food quality. Adams had inherited a 25-year-old central kitchen that shipped meals to elementary schools then equipped only with warmers. To make the transition to serve more fresh food and scratch-prepared items, “Our staff first had to be trained, because our program hadn’t done scratch cooking in a decade.” Grant funds helped pay for installation of cafeteria salad bars and coolers to hold fresh foods. Last year, the old central kitchen was retired, with a new facility opened in a converted seafood processing plant. “We’ve got the infrastructure now to handle an increasing volume of local foods,” he reports. With the aid of a grant, Adams also hired a food specialist to identify and aggregate local food supplies. “We’re sourcing Maine products from midsize farms of 500 to 1,000 acres, which is helping the local economy,” he reports. In addition to being a leader in the farm-to-school movement, Adams has led the Maine School Nutrition Association as president (2006) and legislative chair (2011-present). Looking ahead, he plans to roll out universal breakfast, expand school supper and summer feeding programs and push his local food spending as close as possible to 50% of his food budget. Though excited about these plans, Adams acknowledges that the day inevitably will come when his life takes another turn. ”One of these days it will be ‘school-to-farm.’ My wife is active in vegetable farming, dairy goats and chickens. Many of our meals are entirely what she raised herself. And when the time comes, I’m sure she wouldn’t mind a helper.” Mark Ward is a freelance writer in Victoria, Texas.
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