By Patricia L. Fitzgerald 2015-06-09 06:29:55
RETIREMENT: Some consider it a quintessential part of the American dream. It’s the oft-anticipated milestone when the daily drudgery of work is put aside once and for all, and a life of leisure begins. For some, it’s a chance to travel, volunteer, garden, pursue favorite hobbies, take enrichment classes—or just sleep late each morning. The important thing is that job headaches become a thing of the past. (And, let’s face it, even the best job has its headaches!) For many school nutrition positions, an investment of 20, 25 or 30 years in the same state or in a particular local school district entitles an employee to retirement benefits. So, let’s look at the balance sheet. On one side: increased regulations, rising food and labor costs, tight budgets, aging facilities and equipment, personnel challenges and relentless negative stereotyping of school meals and cafeteria staff. On the other side: paid benefits, personal flexibility, visits with grandchildren, travel and so on. It’s a no-brainer, right? Despite the seeming imbalance of the scales, throughout the school nutrition community, the siren song of retirement falls on numerous deaf ears (at least for now). In prepping for this issue on “School Nutrition Today & Tomorrow,” the magazine team was pleasantly surprised to confirm that so many current and former leaders in the SNA family continue to choose to look past the K-12 segment’s inherent headaches and challenges because they still find great joy and numerous rewards working in this profession. Let’s visit with a few of those who checked in with School Nutrition, as well as some who affirmed their commitment through creative 10-word declarations submitted to the ANC 2015 sweepstakes. What makes these operators, state agency directors and industry reps postpone the joys of retirement and continue to embrace school meals management with gusto? What’s left on their respective to-do lists? And if they could travel back through time, what advice would they give their younger selves—and by extension, the newbies starting out today? MORNING MOTIVATION “I am still in school nutrition because this is my calling, and there is still work to be done.” Thirty years in, and Nancy Rice, MEd, RD, LD, SNS, director, School Nutrition division, Georgia Department of Education and 2010-11 SNA Past President, isn’t going anywhere. “My daughter once said, ‘Mom, do you know what I’ve never heard you say? I’ve never heard you say, ‘I don’t want to go to work today!’” Rice points to her work—and the work of school nutrition professionals all across the country—as “real and honest and honorable.” She takes inspiration from the frontline staff who make meal service “happen each day, without complaint and with generosity.” Sally Spero, SNS, marking 28 years in school nutrition, also gains satisfaction from doing “important work, doing it well and knowing that doing it well makes a difference.” But she’s also candid about being a bit of a maverick when it comes to the subject of retirement. “Frankly, retirement holds no interest for me,” Spero reveals. “I don’t have grandchildren. I have hobbies that interest me as hobbies, but I don’t want to take on reading or knitting sweaters full-time.” Pointing out that she took her current position as Child Nutrition director, Lakeside Union (Calif.) School District, at age 59, “Not going where the crowd is going isn’t exactly new for me,” Spero says. The start of SY 2015-16 will mark Joanne Kinsey’s 40th year in school nutrition, “And I wouldn’t have traded it for the world,” asserts the director of School Nutrition Services, Chesapeake City (Va.) Public Schools. In fact, the continual changes in school nutrition are among the highlights that keep bringing her back year after year. Whether it’s regulations, personnel or the marketplace, Kinsey, SNS, maintains a positive outlook: “Change is good, even though it comes with many challenges. I’ve always found opportunities lie within in. Each year that passes seems to bring another filled with new adventures.” Sharlene Wong, SNS, Food Services director, Wallingford (Conn.) Public Schools, agrees that her tenure of “28 wonderful years” is not in spite of the challenges, but because of them. “I still love my job, facing and surmounting these challenges. I look forward to going to work because the job is never boring,” she reports. She cites her team, the students and her child nutrition friends across the country as among the top rewards of her career choice. Mary-Kate Harrison, PhD, SNS, “thrives on challenges and problem-solving,” so she still thoroughly enjoys the diversity of issues she finds in her position as general manager, Student Nutrition Services, Hillsborough County (Fla.) Public Schools. “I change hats throughout the day, from being a purchasing agent to a fiscal analyst to tech support to maintenance repair to trainer to nutritionist to labor mediator—you get the picture!” Over the course of 30 years in school nutrition, she loves that her skills have been honed by new experiences. You don’t have to be an operator or state agency director to fall hard for the challenges and variety that are inherent in school nutrition. “When I started working for the dairy [farmers], I found my passion for school nutrition, and that hasn’t diminished over the years,” says Camellia Patey, RD, LDN, SNS, vice president, School Wellness Partnerships, National Dairy Council, who has logged more than 25 years in supporting dairy farmers’ connection to child wellness. Lyman Graham, director of Food Services, Roswell (N.M.) Independent School District, is a 26-year veteran who concedes, “The over-regulation of [menus] makes me want to run, but my love for the students always wins out. I am in, because I love feeding my babies.” Graham knows school meals may be the only ones some of his “babies” get, but what gets him going in the morning is trying to come up with solutions to meeting regulations in a way that all students enjoy the dining experience. “I love hearing my students say, “Hurry, you know what they are serving in the cafeteria?’” he recounts. Frontline cafeteria managers and employees often are among the longest-serving professionals in this business. Bonnie Munson, manager, James Madison Elementary School, Ogden, Utah, has worked in school nutrition for 31 years, and her reason, she says, is all about the kids. “I enjoy watching new students come in. They are unsure and scared—and that’s where I step in,” Munson notes. “Greeting them with a smile and helping them handle the day is a joy. I love watching them learn to trust someone new.” After 19 years, Director of Food Service, Shawnee Mission (Kan.) Schools Nancy Coughenour, SNS, continues to be charged up by the positive effects of change over time. “Seeing students’ eating habits improve over the years gets me excited, knowing that I have been part of this change,” she reports. She also enjoys seeing a similar awareness among her staff, when they embrace new initiatives that they realize will benefit children. Linda Eichenberger, SNS, Food Service director, Oak Hills Local School District, Cincinnati, Ohio, and SNA secretary/treasurer, cites both the challenges and the kids as reasons for extending her child nutrition career into a 33rd year. “How many people get to start a ‘new’ job every year? We actually end every year and then start all over again,” she notes, adding that she’s also buoyed by the knowledge that “I have touched many children’s lives—they don’t even know I do it.” STILL IN IT TO WIN IT SN asked its interviewees if there was one major project that they would like to complete before the day comes when they do submit retirement papers. Their responses ranged from macro goals to specific endeavors. Eichenberger enjoys leading her team, “helping them learn and encouraging them to be the best they can,” she notes. Thus, it’s fitting that the one goal she still wants to accomplish before retirement is “to encourage one more person to take the next step in their career. I have had many mentors during my career, and it’s my time to mentor others.” Munson wants to take her passion, service and expertise beyond her school, district and state. “I’ve always wanted to be on the national SNA Board of Directors. I have lots of experience, and I would love to be a part of that,” she explains. In Chesapeake, Va., Kinsey has been lobbying her district’s transportation department for a bus that she could convert for summer foodservice outreach. “This summer, that vision will become reality,” she announces. Partnering with a school plants supervisor, Kinsey says “The Cruising Café” and “Nutrition Express” will expand summer feeding, and “Part Two of the project is the cherry on top: During the school year, the bus will travel as a nutrition learning lab. Teachers will sign up for a visit, students will come aboard and our nutrition educator will engage them in a classroom experience,” she explains, adding, “Of course, a healthy snack will be offered.” Harrison dreams of establishing a “Culinary Creation Center” where offices, conference/training space, test/catering kitchens, production facilities and storage are all under one roof in Tampa. Her vision includes allowing other school-based programs to use the training/meeting facilities—as well as her catering services. Rice wants to reevaluate state job descriptions to better align job responsibilities with compensation. “It is important to reward your staff with compensation, as well as thanks, kindness and positive leadership. I want them to know they matter. They make a difference, and they are awesome!” In California, Spero would like to be a part of a successful effort in returning “more sensible regulations” to school meal programs. “I have been doing this a long time, and I know that what we have now is not in the children’s or district’s best interests. I refuse to leave until it is fixed!” Roswell’s Graham wants to keep driving forward a change in the image of school food. “It should be the best restaurant in town,” he notes. While acknowledging SNA for its efforts to build positive press, he laments that overall, “We just do not market [enough] all that we do to better the lives of students, staff and community.” Wong also wants to see her “paid student” participation rise back to pre-regulation-change levels. “I hope that more nutrition education and societal acceptance of the [regulatory changes] will eventually bring the paid students back into the fold,” she says. STAY THE COURSE The 10 seasoned veterans interviewed for this article have a combined 290 years of school nutrition experience. If they could travel back in time and offer advice to their rookie counterparts, it’s safe to assume that they would recommend some changes in actions and attitudes. • Nancy Rice: “Think for yourself, while listening to advice. Don’t sweat the small stuff so much. Take time for your family—they will still be there when no one else is. Laugh as much as possible, even if people think you’re crazy!” • Sally Spero: “I would share all the ways to handle the toughest situations, the things that aren’t covered in the textbook or the seminar. Also, I don’t like to brag, but I think in 28 years, I have made just about every mistake possible!” • Joanne Kinsey: “Be patient and persistent. Timing is everything. Direct your energy to projects that are doable and that you control. Keep things on the back burner that are important to you and benefit the students—there will come a time when you can move it to the front and accomplish the goal.” • Sharlene Wong: “Forget advice—I’d [travel back in time with] a list of Kentucky Derby winners and mega-lottery numbers. But seriously, I would urge against dwelling on the low points at work. Everything always works out, so enjoy the ride—it will be one of the most exciting rollercoasters you get on.” • Mary-Kate Harrison: “People will try to discourage you—don’t let them. Know when to walk away; figure out what’s worth ‘going down to the mat for the fight’ and when you need to just smile and nod.” • Camellia Patey: “Look for challenges that help you grow not only in your career, but also that help to advance nutrition in schools.” • Lyman Graham: “Think bigger! Don’t be limited by someone’s attitude or regulations that come and go. All things are possible and the world is open for you to change it for the better. Don’t wait to get started right now!” • Bonnie Munson: “Get all the education that you can. It is something you will never regret.” • Nancy Coughenour: “Discover school foodservice earlier, instead of working so many years in health care.” • Linda Eichenberger: “Learn, learn, learn! Learn all you can, because the payoff is great in the end. Commit to knowing what you are passionate about and pursuing that with vigor, while remaining open to other interesting and engaging ideas.” They’d also likely agree on one universal piece of advice to their younger selves—and to the up-and-comers getting started in school nutrition today: You got a good thing going, kid. Stick with it. A look at why some school nutrition stalwarts keep hitting the “snooze button” on retirement plans. After 35 years serving the neediest, still love my job. —Robin Kaplan-Michalski, New York More leg hugs than I can count! —Dave Tolliver, South Dakota It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure! —Clair Blanchard, Louisiana I wanted a big family but never dreamed of 513 kids. —Patsy Hunter, Tennessee Adored the kids, loved the job. Wanted better, became involved! —Angela Bentley, Utah Love: 6,300 days of lunches served to NMCSC students and staff. —Sandra Bradshaw, Indiana SNA inspired a nobody and changed her into a someone who makes a difference. —Pamela LeFrois, Georgia Better living through children, nutrition and fitness. —Matthew Franklin, Virginia It’s not my job, it’s my passion. —Andrea Haskell, Michigan I never dreamed I could love a career so much! —Tami Hitt-Wyant, Arizona Thirty years of smiles, learning and fun. Have no regrets! —Dianne Cole, Iowa I love making food fun! Feeding children feeds my soul. —Gail Griffin, Maine A positive me, [plus] a positive child makes a positive future. —Annette Fernandez, California BONUS WEB CONTENT Need more inspiration about what’s possible in school nutrition—whether you’ve just started or you need fresh ideas for your 22nd year? School nutrition professionals share some of their top career achievements as an exclusive online extra. Visit www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonuscontent to read more. Patricia Fitzgerald is editor of School Nutrition. Photography by jiunlimited.com.
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