By Arianne Corbett, RD 2015-06-09 10:16:42
IN 2004, Jeffrey Torney, SNS, received a rather blustery welcome when he moved south from his home in Michigan to Florida to serve as an intern with the Food and Nutrition department of Sarasota County Schools. During his first few months there, the “Sunshine State” experienced a record hurricane season, causing the district to activate its schools as emergency shelters for four separate storms. Unshaken by the dramatic weather, Torney jumped in with both feet and volunteered his own time to feed those evacuated from their homes. Though he was new to the K-12 school nutrition segment, Torney immediately showcased the character strengths of so many successful school nutrition operators: an unending compassion for people and a willingness to get the job done, no matter the circumstances. Not surprisingly, following the completion of his internship, Torney was hired full-time by the district and now serves the Food and Nutrition department as an area supervisor. According to research from the National Foodservice Management Institute (NFSMI), approximately one-quarter to one-third of the nation’s school nutrition directors plans to retire in the next five years. As school nutrition operations continue to grow in complexity, the profession is in dire need for individuals such as Torney to join the ranks. It’s more crucial today to identify strategies to recruit and train the directors, supervisor and managers of tomorrow. One promising approach is the supervised, hands-on, on-the-job training found through school nutrition internships. A SYMBIOTIC RELATIONSHIP While it should be obvious why and how interns benefit from the valuable experience of participating in a K-12 school nutrition program, it might be less clear why district directors take the time and effort to run these education opportunities, taking on yet another new hat, serving as “preceptor” (someone who hosts an intern). Reasons vary. Some directors who had great mentors of their own feel the need to give back, while others appreciate an intern’s eagerness to learn and excitement to contribute. “They keep me on my toes!” exclaims Meghan Gibbons, RD, SNS, director of Nutrition Services, Valley View School District 365U, Bolingbrook, Ill. “They see things from an outside perspective and make you more innovative and fresh. You learn from each other.” Indeed, Gibbons will be among the first to advise you that the intern-preceptor relationship needs to be a balanced one. “It is imperative that you create a symbiotic relationship. Not only are you teaching them, but also what are you getting out of it?” You should develop objectives for your interns that will leave them feeling positive about the educational experience, but also that will make a positive—and potentially lasting—impact on your operation and your students. FINDING THE RIGHT INTERN Of course, before you get to those mutually beneficial project objectives, you need to find an intern—and make time to find one that will be a good fit. With an ever-greater emphasis on students being prepped to leave college on a firm career track (better positioned to pay off those loans), these budding professionals are angling for opportunities to get a foot in the door of a potential job as soon as possible. Arguably, internships have never been more valuable to students than they are today. Internships provide students with the opportunity to gain hands-on experiences and develop marketable skills. “We teach our interns to utilize critical thinking, maintain situational awareness, have an appropriate sense of urgency and have a positive response to direction,” says Kathy Glindmeier, RD, SNS, director of Nutrition and Wellness and SNA internship director for Paradise Valley (Ariz.) Unified School District. These skills, and many more, can be developed during a summer internship—or any other time during the year. Interns could work with your program for as little as a few days or as long as the full school year. They come from a number of educational backgrounds; you may be most familiar with the clinical rotations required for many dietetics degrees, but this is just one source. Let’s take a look at the array of programs that you can tap to find students with potential interest in K-12 school nutrition. Dietetic education programs are one major pipeline for prospective interns. Most students who are planning a career in clinical nutrition as a registered dietitian (RD) or dietetic technician must complete an internship of at least 1,200 supervised practice hours in nutrition to be qualified to sit for the RD examination. Even in advance of the official clinical internship rotation process, some candidates seek volunteer opportunities in order to strengthen their internship applications later. Depending on their level of experience, these students can offer a wealth of skills and abilities for your program. To find dietetic education programs in your area, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ (AND) Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND) offers searchable databases with contact information. A “Find a Preceptor” database will help you connect with directors in the area who can give novices some advice about getting started. Visit http://tinyurl.com/ANDinternship. SNA internships are designed to provide college students and current school nutrition professionals with the training and opportunities necessary to pursue a district-level supervisory position in school nutrition. SNA’s Internship Program is currently offered at three host sites, but SNA’s website, SchoolNutrition.org, features a list of colleges and universities that offer courses in nutrition, foodservice and/or hospitality that you may be able to partner with to create an SNA internship in your own district. Find more information at www.schoolnutrition.org/internships. Foodservice, restaurant and culinary management programs can be another source for strong intern candidates. Plus, it’s not just top-tier universities that offer such programs; you can find these at many community colleges and vocational schools, as well. Reach out to program directors or offer to speak to a class about careers in the K-12 segment—remember to tout some of the great benefits, such as daytime working hours, paid vacation time, health insurance, professional collaborations and rewarding interactions with children. A few hours of your time could pay off with a dedicated intern and a room full of future foodservice professionals who respect the work you do. Culinary programs typically require an internship and/or externship and can lead to an excellent opportunity to introduce future chefs to the world of school nutrition. Again, look to culinary programs in your area and make a few inquiries of the dean or the school’s career services department. Ellen Nylen, culinary specialist and chef, South Madison Community School Corporation, Pendleton, Ind., believes hosting culinary interns is a particularly effective way to see what a trained chef could offer your district’s school meals operation. “[Hosting] a culinary student would be a good way to have someone on staff at a price that’s affordable, and to see if that is the direction [the district] wants to go,” she explains. While some culinary programs are aware of the recent changes to school meals programs, Nylen notes, others may need to be educated on new initiatives sweeping the nation, including more scratch cooking and connections with local farms, as well as the demands of the country’s youngest consumers. FoodCorps service members work with K-12 schools to provide food and nutrition education, offer younger students hands-on activities like gardening and cooking and support connections to obtaining local foods. This program is a part of the Ameri-Corps service network; its service members operate in a similar capacity to an Ameri-Corps volunteer. If an intern focused on nutrition education or school gardening is a good fit for your district, look to see if FoodCorps is operating in your state. WHAT ABOUT MY WORKLOAD? Are you worried that hosting an intern will just turn out to be more work for you? Fear not. Despite rampant misconceptions about hosting interns, many school nutrition professionals report that hosting interns is a rewarding, uplifting experience. But don’t wear rose-colored glasses, either. “The first time as a preceptor, it’s a little daunting,” concedes Monica Kjosen, MS, RD, a Sodexo district manager working in Colorado and Wyoming. Most intern arrangements include requirements you must follow, to ensure the educational experience is meeting its goal. Potential requirements include completing specific projects or logging a set amount of time dedicated to menu planning, customer service, administrative duties, budgeting, equipment and marketing. The good news is these skills are among your day-to-day responsibilities, meaning interns can help you get the job done. Kjosen is encouraging when she describes what her interns can handle. “They are smart, young professionals,” she adds, cautioning against giving interns overly menial tasks. Give thoughtful consideration to project assignments. “I always try to have the intern do a project that is of value to me and my program in return for my time as a preceptor,” notes Debbi Beauvais, RDN, SNS, supervisor of District School Nutrition Services, Gates-Chili Central School District, Rochester, N.Y. For example, if you need a new piece of equipment, an intern can help research the specs. Need some updates to the staff’s job descriptions? That’s an excellent assignment idea. And who doesn’t need help coordinating taste tests and satisfaction surveys? When it comes to developing an internship opportunity in your district, “Don’t recreate the wheel,” advises Glindmeier. Talk to other colleagues in the area—chances are someone you know has hosted an intern and will be willing to help you get up and running. A committed advocate of this win-win opportunity, Glindmeier says she’s quite willing to share materials, her intern schedule and even her student handbook to interested peers. She also recommends turning to SNA’s online resources for help. Gibbons insists that the process gets easier every time. Once you have had the experience of hosting a few interns, “It’s kind of like writing a budget. You never start from ground zero,” she says. “Start from last year and tweak [the plan]. Pull a past schedule and compare it to [the new intern’s] needs.” NEVER TOO SMALL! Many directors operating school meal programs in small (and very small) school districts improperly perceive that internship opportunities are only for their peers in larger systems. Arguably, smaller districts with fewer central office staff need the help even more than their larger counterparts! Marty Herringshaw, foodservice director of two small Michigan school districts, Melvindale-Northern Allen Park and Grosse Ile Township School Districts, believes that interns also benefit from small district experience. “They get an understanding of the basics of the foodservice operation, because they are constantly interacting with cooks, line servers and students,” she says. Directors of small districts wear numerous hats, so Herringshaw suggests tasking interns with responsibilities that you struggle to complete. “Because I share [oversight of] two small districts, I miss out on that exposure with kids,” she notes. “My favorite thing is to have [interns] work on [customer] surveys and have more interaction with students. This helps them understand that feedback is a key thing.” Another set of eyes on a big project can really come in handy, too. “I had an administrative review in January and an intern during November and December,” Herringshaw recalls. “She helped me in gathering nutritional information and in going through every step of the preparation for review!” Even after the intern had left the district, she remembered the review dates and emailed Herringshaw to learn how things turned out. “It went really well!” Herringshaw reports. Also, by hosting interns, smaller school districts can do their part to develop the next generation of school nutrition directors—which research expects to be in particularly high demand for small communities in the coming years. With the new training and educational requirements now mandated by USDA for the hire of directors, introducing interns to school nutrition—at districts of all sizes—will be more important than ever. The potential pay-off is huge. “I would say that 80% of my interns, when they are done, say they want to work in school nutrition,” notes Kjosen. PASS IT ON Kjosen’s experience is echoed by Torney’s career path in Sarasota—and by many other interns all across the country, who find a home in school nutrition and never look back. In upstate New York, Beauvais’ current intern, Renee Ortolani, is ready to follow in her new mentor’s footsteps. “I hope to be a foodservice director within a school district in Rochester, N.Y., one day!” she exclaims. “You can see and feel the passion that Debbi portrays every day when it comes to feeding children. She sets my personal and professional standards high in wanting to achieve all that she has as a director of school nutrition.” Beauvais is gratified when an internship succeeds in showcasing the inner-workings of her profession. “There are so many misperceptions about the hows and whys of school nutrition,” she says. “I really try to get as much information shared with the student within the time allowed—School Nutrition 101, if you will. I want the student to be able to discuss the business of school nutrition from an operator’s perspective after spending time in the trenches. Experiencing it firsthand tends to lend a different story than what they thought they knew coming in.” Sara Gasiorowski, SNS, Child Nutrition director, Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township, Indianapolis, believes it is her duty to expose young professionals to the fulfilling work she does every day. “It does take time from [our obligations],” she concedes, “but I think that is also our role as leaders—to mentor and show them what a great career opportunity this could be.” As a result, Gasiorowski has been extremely successful in hiring from her intern pool. “My first intern was the daughter of our personnel director. She needed a rotation in community nutrition and ended up being my first assistant. My first three assistants all had a link through their dietetic internship program!” “I once was someone’s intern,” says Beauvais. “They gave their time to my growth and now I am doing my part to give back to the profession and hoping to get the word out about school nutrition, too.” Potential INTERN PROJECTS At Valley View School District 365U, Bolingbrook, Ill, Director of Nutrition Services Meghan Gibbons, RD, SNS, developed a simple solution to make sure project assignments for interns are relevant to them and useful for her operation. “I always have an intern project list, a to-do list ongoing,” she explains. “Anytime a manager mentions something, or we say, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if…’ I put that on the intern project list.” Then, when Gibbons has the opportunity to host an intern, she pulls straight from that list. “They all have varied backgrounds. We had one who was a researcher in the past. We gave her a project that catered to that ability.” When you find the right intern and the right project, a symbiotic relationship will develop—and you just might be nurturing the future of the profession while gaining valuable assistance in your own operation. Some examples of successful intern projects follow, with other ideas available online at www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonuscontent. • CONDUCT A PLATE WASTE STUDY: “I’d been paying attention to the Cornell [University’s] Smarter Lunchrooms techniques and wanted to conduct a plate waste study using their materials,” Gibbons recalls. After receiving supporting resources from Cornell, Gibbons asked an intern to organize and conduct the study. A major finding was that milk was the most commonly wasted item. “For some reason it is drilled into my own mind and those of my staff, that [students must] take a milk.” Gibbons researched the rule and subsequently retrained her staff. They moved the milk coolers from the beginning of the serving line to the end, where staff could confirm that milk was desired. As a result, milk waste decreased. • IMPROVE YOUR RECIPES: Lindsey Hill, RD, director of Nutrition Services for South Madison Community School Corporation, Pendleton, Ind., discovered that her recipe database was in need of an overhaul. Three different interns helped to revamp the district’s recipes over the course of a year. “They were charged with pulling every recipe out, meeting with staff and working with staff to test the recipe,” reports Hill. Now all recipes in the database are tested, proofed and confirmed first. One intern showed such amazing initiative, she was hired on staff for the summer months to help complete the project! • RESEARCH SPECIAL DIETS: Sara Gasiorowski, SNS, Child Nutrition director, Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township, Indianapolis, assigned an intern the task of researching polycystic kidney disease and menu needs in preparation for a meeting with school administrators and a student’s family. She reviewed the district’s procurement guide, highlighting the ingredients the student could not have. Then she identified possible menus, detailing what could be served and what would require special order. Gasiorowski was able to walk into the meeting prepared to discuss menu accommodations. Profile INTERN PROGRAM SCHOOL DISTRICT: Sarasota County Schools LOCATION: Osprey, Fla. DISTRICT SIZE: 54 sites/42,000 students PROGRAM DURATION: 10 months NUMBER OF INTERNS: Three to four per year PROGRAM GOALS: To prepare dietetic interns for entry-level positions in dietetics; to perform a variety of tasks required for operating a successful school foodservice department; and to positively impact the quality and adequacy of food and nutrition services for children and adolescents. BACKGROUND: After completing an undergraduate degree and a master’s in nutrition, Beverly Girard, PhD, RD, SNS, director of Food and Nutrition Services and the Dietetic Internship Program for Sarasota County Public Schools, had never considered school nutrition as a career path. Only by chance (her roommate’s mother was a foodservice director) did she discover what would become her life’s work. “How did I miss this? Why didn’t someone tell me about this?” she asks. Girard decided she would take on the responsibility to show rising dietitians what rewarding opportunities school nutrition has to offer. RESULTS: After 16 years and about 50 graduates, her former dietetic interns are spread far and wide throughout the country, spanning the school nutrition spectrum from foodservice directors to state agency professionals, NFSMI consultants and nutrition educators. Others work with distributors, manufacturers and food marketing groups. Quite a few stayed put in Sarasota, too! Seven are currently on staff. “We are doing our level best to raise up the future leaders” of this profession, Girard says. BONUS WEB CONTENT Need more ideas for projects that student interns can assist or lead? From recipe development to grant proposals to producing an action plan for the HealthierUS Schools Challenge to nutrition education initiatives, these are limited only by your imagination. Find a list of suggestions to kick start your brainstorming and more encouraging words from veterans at www.schoolnutrition.org/SNMagazine/BonusWebContent. Arianne Corbett is managing director of Leading Health, LLC, in Tampa, Fla., and a former manager of nutrition advocacy at SNA. Photography by jiunlimited.com.
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