By Kelsey Casselbury 2015-07-24 02:24:14
There was a time—nearly a decade ago—when Jean Ronnei, SNS, spent much of her free time tending to a large garden behind her home. It featured a pond, shade and rock gardens. A lot of work to maintain, to be sure, but Ronnei would retreat to that garden for hours. “Often, I’d be lost in thought, and hours would pass in the joy of being outside and in the dirt,” she recalls. But then, as so many couples do when their children fly the nest, Ronnei and her husband downsized to a garden-free town home, and she shifted her downtime to biking and other fitness pursuits. But she hasn’t stopped gardening, at least metaphorically speaking. After spending 24 years as the Nutrition Services director for Saint Paul (Minn.) Public Schools (SPPS), Ronnei “grew” her career exponentially in 2013 by accepting a promotion to Chief Operations Officer for the district. It was a move that initially gave her pause, as it would mean less direct oversight of the Nutrition Services program. After all, more than two decades’ investment produces pretty deep roots in school meals. Ronnei rarely says no to a challenge, though. So, after making sure she could fulfill her leadership commitment to SNA—she had already been elected vice president when the promotion presented itself—she took the leap. Despite the demands of her new position, Ronnei regularly makes time to tap into those foodservice roots. Although she turned the Nutrition Services reins over to the capable and committed Stacy Koppen, MS, RD, Ronnei continues to cultivate her love of school nutrition operations by popping into training sessions periodically to remind the staff how much she misses and values them. Additionally, as SNA President, she will spend the next year leading SNA through the Child Nutrition Reauthorization process, the objectives of the Association’s Strategic Plan and many other challenges—and opportunities—that are sure to present themselves to the K-12 school nutrition profession in the months to come. As she and SNA are on the grow, Ronnei most certainly will be on the go! School Nutrition invites you to read on and learn more about your dynamic new president. By day, Jean Ronnei, SNS, serves as the Chief Operations Officer for Saint Paul Public Schools. Outside the office, though, this Minnesota gal is an avid biker, a world traveler and, of course, SNA’s newest president. Digging In SCHOOL NUTRITION: Tell us about your parents, siblings and some of your memories growing up. RONNEI: I’m a Minnesota girl. My father started his career as a high school English teacher and worked in small-town school districts. Then we moved to Hopkins, a suburb of Minneapolis, where he was a teacher, assistant principal, principal and then ended his career as an assistant superintendent for the district. One of the departments he oversaw was nutrition services. Mom stayed at home at first, but when my two brothers and I were in high school, she worked for the University of Minnesota, doing health studies. She and other folks would go to homes around the state and do dietary recalls, blood pressure studies and so on. My family was extremely frugal. Growing up with a principal is not exactly how you become rich. However, once my brothers and I were grown, my parents took us on a vacation to Hawaii. After my father passed away, my mother vowed that she was going to continue taking us on vacations, so we could stay close. We went to some interesting places every other year, like Belize, Costa Rica and France. My brothers both have interesting stories! My older brother lives in Beijing, China. He was a Chinese literature major at a time when the country was closed off from the West, so we thought he was being rather silly to get that degree! But he did, and then diplomatic relations opened up. He married a French woman whom he met in China, who also speaks Mandarin, and they have raised two girls. My younger brother met his wife when they both worked for the Kimball (Minn.) School District. They, too, are adventurous and decided they’d move to wherever they got their first job offer. It turned out to be from Northway, Alaska, where the K-12 school had a total of 80 students! They also have two girls and have since moved back to Minnesota. SN: Did you eat school lunch as a child? RONNEI: Yes, I did! I have a terrible sweet tooth, so, for me, my school lunch memories are around desserts, particularly apple and cherry crisp. Planting the Seeds SN: Where did you go to college? RONNEI: I went to Iowa State University, where I got a degree in Hotel & Restaurant Management (HRM). Great memories. I made some lifelong friends in the dorm and then, after the first year, I spent three years living with three roommates in a two-bedroom apartment. Me and one of my roommates could really do some damage when it came to foosball. I had several foodservice jobs growing up. In college, I worked for the student union; I was a banquet waitress and cook—any job that needed to be done. That’s how I paid some of my way through college…or helped offset my foosball habit. SN: Why did you choose an HRM degree? RONNEI: I really, truly thought that I would go to school, get a degree in food science and be involved in issues around hunger. I had this dream about working to create a food that would end hunger—ahh, the dream of a young woman! But, I ran into chemistry and that experience made me change my degree and my major. I switched from food science to HRM. Part of it was just loving the aspects of operating a foodservice kitchen. It seemed like a great way to feed hungry people and make people happy. I didn’t even know foodservice—especially school foodservice—was a career, and think that’s still true for many people today. College students don’t really know what opportunities are out there. SN: What was your first job out of college? RONNEI: I worked for a privately held public cafeteria chain with freestanding and mall locations throughout the Midwest. It was headquartered in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I went to the interview, and they began to tell me about the job, which was “manager trainee.” At one point, I asked, “Do you want to know anything about me?” And they said, “Oh yeah, oh yeah.” I suspect they hadn’t hired any women in a management position, and they knew they needed to do that, as times were changing. The job was a challenge to me, and I like challenges. But it wasn’t the career I thought I’d be in. SN: Give us a timeline from that first job to working in schools. RONNEI: The cafeteria chain had a nine-month training program that was incredibly valuable to my future. For example, I spent two weeks in the dish room, a month in the bakery. We also made our own stocks and gravy from scratch and we had a butcher shop. I really learned every aspect of foodservice, and the company was phenomenally gifted at metrics. After that, I was ready to be promoted from a trainee, I guess, and this big city girl transferred from Omaha, Nebraska, to Sioux City, Iowa, and I was a kitchen manager for one cafeteria site there. Again, those metrics were really, really important. Each month, the company shared metrics for each site food cost, labor cost meals per minute, etc. I did all the purchasing and managed all the aspects of the kitchen, and my two colleagues and I served three meals a day, seven days a week. We would get reports and, as competitive as I am, I prided myself on having the lowest food costs most months. However, I was working six days a week, which is very common in that foodservice segment. I had Mondays off. I knew nobody when I moved to Sioux City. I had little sparetime and was lucky to make one great friend. SN: So, how did you get back to Minnesota? RONNEI: My mom had clipped out a three-sentence job posting from a Minneapolis newspaper and mailed it to me. I called up my old boyfriend and asked him if he was married yet, and he begrudgingly said ‘No.’ I said, ‘I’m coming to Minneapolis and wonder if you’d see me.’ He made a beautiful dinner for me, I got the job my mother had clipped out and the rest is history. (Jean has been married to “her old boyfriend,” now husband, Chuck, for 34 years.) I worked for a contract management company, and my first job was with the Minneapolis Star Tribune, running its company cafeteria. I was promoted to district manager. Then, there was a non-patient foodservice job as assistant director for Hennepin County Medical Center. I took that job with the possibility I’d be named the director on a self-operated basis, when the contract ended—and that’s how it worked out. Then, I met other directors working in foodservices. One was Candace Witter, who was the director of Saint Paul Public Schools and another was JoEllen Miner, the director for Minneapolis Public Schools. In 1989, Candace told me she was planning to retire, and she thought I should apply for her job. Everything’s Coming Up Roses SN: What were those first few years in K-12 school nutrition like? RONNEI: I was young and thought I knew everything. The first year was really challenging, because I came into a district where the foodservice department had been subsidized by general funds. I had to turn around a $600,000 deficit in just eight months, which was difficult because you can only do so much with the year’s plans mostly in place. But I had an incredibly talented staff and a phenomenal central kitchen, and they were doing so many things so well that we were able to pull it off. SN: Let’s talk about your promotion to chief operations officer (COO) for Saint Paul Public Schools. RONNEI: A couple years ago, my boss gave his notice shortly before school started. They needed to fill the vacancy, so I was asked to be interim COO. I, of course, said “yes” and did that job while also managing my foodservice job, with the idea that soon they would hire someone else “right” for the job. After doing this for a few months, I was asked by the superintendent if I’d be interested in the position. I explained that I was really committed to foodservice and was vice president of our Association. I made a commitment to SNA, and I needed to fulfill that. We had additional conversations about it, and I realized she wasn’t just being nice in suggesting me for the position. I talked to SNA CEO Patti Montague about whether the bylaws would allow it, and there was no restriction. For me, it wasn’t a question of whether I’d take a job that would have me abandoning my volunteer leadership of SNA. So, I presented my travel schedule to the superintendent, and explained the commitment, and she agreed that I could continue to serve as an SNA officer in my new position. SN: Did you have any other hesitations? RONNEI: Of course! First, when you commit your life to foodservice and then you’re not going to be doing that anymore, it makes you pause. On the other hand, I really enjoyed the new challenge. I was learning an awful lot about a lot of things. After 24 years in school food, it was kind of nice to be refreshed and rejuvenated with something new. I have an incredible team of leaders in operations who make me so proud. SN: Looking back, what are some of your biggest accomplishments as head of the Nutrition Services department? RONNEI: I think we’ve hit a lot of high marks: high quality, high standards, innovation. We’re ahead of the curve with a great staff. Having all the career changes that I’ve had, there isn’t any foodservice segment that I’ve seen that has such a caring, committed staff. I think a part of it is that connection to education and the customers we’re serving. I definitely can connect with educators. Nutrition Services is highly respected for the role school meals play in the school day. Our superintendent and school board are so supportive of Nutrition Services. I was at a school yesterday, and I was told a story that, to me, is telling of our profession: The supervisor at this particular school, and her right-hand person, are so beloved by the kids in this school that teachers will sometimes call them down to their classroom if a student is upset. A hug from one of them is enough to calm the student down. That, to me, is inspirational. SN: Tell us some of your history with SNA, so readers understand why it was so important for you to follow through with your leadership commitment. RONNEI: I joined right away. Our state association in Minnesota has a really great directors group, which is where I met my best friend—we all have our school food friends!—Mary Anderson from Wayzata Public Schools. She and I have known each other for 25 years. I’ve also gotten to know some other folks who have become great family friends. Making these lifelong friends through SNA is absolutely one of the best things about our Association. SN: What was your first ANC? RONNEI: No clue. I don’t remember! Isn’t it terrible? SN: Then, how about: What was the most memorable conference for you? RONNEI: Oh, that’s an easy one! It was the Industry Seminar [now the School Nutrition Industry Conference (SNIC)] in Asheville, N.C., in 1996. We had an incredibly great opportunity to meet and network—it’s a smaller conference, and it was a beautiful setting. There were some team-building exercises that were just amazing. I remember some great takeaways and the rich relationships that developed. SN: What inspired you to run for a leadership position in the national SNA? RONNEI: Dora Rivas, from Dallas, was incoming SNA president and asked if I would co-chair SNIC during her year. I think, sometimes, you don’t even know if anyone notices you. It’s a big Association—you’re involved, you attend, but you just don’t see yourself in a leadership role. I didn’t plan to take a leadership role, but when asked, I thought, “Well, maybe I could do that.” Dora is the reason. After that, I was [speaking with former SNA Dean of Education] Danny Seymour, and I said, “Maybe I’m going to run for vice president.” He looked at me and said, “Jean, Jean, Jean. You don’t just run for vice president! You gotta be on the Board first, you gotta do this and that.” He just poked fun at me. I had no idea what I was doing. I went back and read the eligibility criteria and thought, “I better hurry up!” I started looking at what conferences I’d been to. I got myself on a committee—education, which I adored—then I ran for education chair and got that post. Then I ran for vice president. SN: What has this multi-year road to the presidency been like for you? RONNEI: Daunting. The business world has changed in 25 years. We don’t have as much discretionary time, and there’s so much more packed into our days, making it difficult to hold a job and volunteer. It’s important that SNA continues to take a look at that struggle in regard to its national and state governance, so we can keep growing future leaders and stay strong as an organization. We’re going to need to work on refining and managing the expectations of our volunteers. SN: What priorities do you want to focus on as president during the next year? RONNEI: Continuing to promote the value of serving healthier foods. My mom was an exceptional cook. A Midwestern woman in small-town Minnesota, she transformed our dining room table with shrimp Creole, lobsters, fondue—she was just always making something unique. My mother was very health-conscious, so health for our children and health for our future has always been foremost for me. When one of my brothers and I decided we were going to be vegetarians, she promptly began making recipes from Diet For a Small Planet! I would say I’m a very strong advocate of good, real food for our children. And when I say “real food,” I mean whole grains, fruits and vegetables and not a lot of highly processed foods. Real food to me means flavorful, satisfying and a joy to eat. Plus, “who” puts food on the plate is critical. You can’t put a price tag on the relationship that our members build with children. I also want to see financially healthy school nutrition operations that allow us to focus on these priorities for our children. Operators need adequate funding in order to purchase quality foods; hire and train caring staff; and manage the new complexities of our programs. SN: Are you ready for some of the challenges in front of you? Particularly those in regard to the political landscape, such as passing the next Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill? RONNEI: I believe in working together. That’s how we’re going to accomplish things. We might not see things exactly the same way, but I do believe that our Association and other organizations have the same basic mission for child nutrition in mind. If we all keep that in mind, we’ll get where we need to be. I am very optimistic. Grown With Love SN: Members always want to know a little more about the “person” who serves as national president. What are some of your hobbies? RONNEI: Who’s got time? Just kidding! I love to bike—I’d say my number one passion is for physical fitness. I belong to a health club, and I go at least four times a week, early in the morning. I set my alarm for 4:30 a.m., and I’m usually there by 5:30 a.m. I love classes, so I do the barbell and Les Mills’ BODYPUMP. However, I can’t do it right now because I had surgery on my elbow. So, I’m making sure I get my 10,000 steps in each day. SN: You told us a little about your parents and siblings. What about the rest of your family? RONNEI: I have been married to Chuck for 34 years. I met him at age 17 on a blind date. We have lots in common—we like to hike, cook, the same music, same poetry and books, and he’s cute! Chuck retired last May—partly because I took this new job—to be able to manage everything at home. I don’t have a whole lot of extra time, between friends and work and my new grandson…. SN: I know you like to talk about Ben! RONNEI: He’s a little over a year old. I’m so sad they won’t be able to come to ANC, because my daughter, Shelby, and her husband, Jeff, are expecting number two on August 14! Will our hands be full with two little boys!? They live just 20 minutes away. Ben’s the love of our lives. They come over on Sunday nights, and we have a ritual—we get the afternoon and evening with Ben. I also have a son, John, who’s 33. We also have two dogs: Lucy is a shelter dog. She’s 10 and a mutt. There’s definitely some terrier in her and pug—she’s not very attractive! The other one is a cockapoo, also 10, who my brother shipped to us from China. His family was moving and couldn’t keep him, so we picked him up at the airport, fell in love and decided we weren’t going to give him back! Fortunately, they were just fine with that. SN: Do you like to cook at home? RONNEI: I’m actually the baker and Chuck is the cook. He’s even more inventive than my mother was. He will read cookbooks for fun! He loves spicy food, so we eat a lot of vegetarian spicy dishes. I am famous for my “Family Cookies.” They’re pretty much a basic chocolate chip cookie recipe, and then you throw in cornflakes and oatmeal. (For the recipe, check www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazine/bonuswebcontent.) Sage Advice SN: If you go could go back in time 25 years, what advice would you give yourself? RONNEI: Well, for one, get involved in the Association earlier on! Also, I don’t have a master’s degree, and I wish I had done that. You can advance yourself without it, but it’s more difficult. If I’d only taken advantage of the wonderful School Nutrition Foundation scholarships that were—and still are—available! Plus, I’d try not to limit myself so much. I’ve waited for people to ask me before I would do something myself. I knew I could do whatever I wanted to do, but I never acted on it. It took Dora [Rivas] to ask me; it took my superintendent to ask me. SN: What will you do this time next year, when your term is over? RONNEI: By then I’ll have two grandchildren that we can spend more time with. With a retired husband, I’m looking forward to continuing to work, while spending more time with family... and travel. SN: And where do you want to go? RONNEI: Back to Belize. I haven’t been to Beijing, and I’d love to go there. I want to do an Alaska cruise. There are just so many places in the world, it’s hard to pick! Kelsey Casselbury is the managing editor of SN. Photos by Rick Brady. Tell Us a Story... What’s your most memorable experience in working with SNA President Jean Ronnei? “Jean still made time to attend our annual supervisor training and remind everyone how much she misses them. She said nutrition services may not be the most glamorous work, but it is the most fun. One supervisor stood up and said, ‘I want you all to know Jean came to my school when she first started. She was so cute in her pretty suit, and she offered to help. She was standing next to a fryer that I knew would ruin that suit. There she was then—trying to help us. Now, here she is, still trying to help us.‘ The room broke out in applause.”—Stacy Koppen, MS, RD, SPPS Nutrition Services Director “I was visiting schools when I was SPPS’ chief academic officer, and I saw a school implementing breakfast-to-go. I shared this idea with Jean and, a few months later, she had taken the idea and made it into a reality.”—Valeria S. Silva, SPPS Superintendent “Leaders work very closely, and you become personal, as well as professional, friends. Jean and I were at a meeting together when I returned a phone call to someone who shared personal news that rocked my world. Jean knew I was returning the call, and her eye contact with me after I returned to the room instantly told me she supported me and would be there for me. I will never forget the look on her face. Everything would be fine, and Jean was there for me throughout as my friend.”—Julia Bauscher, SNS, 2014-15 SNA President In Three Words... How would you describe SNA President Jean Ronnei? “Visionary, passionate, voice of reason.”—Mary Anderson, Culinary Express Supervisor, Wayzata (Minn.) Public Schools “Sincere, driven, inspiring.”—Stacy Koppen, MS, RD, SPPS Nutrition Services Director “Organized, dependable, hard worker.”—Valeria S. Silva, SPPS Superintendent A few Favorite Things What is Jean’s favorite… BOOK? “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” by Garth Stein MOVIE? “Argo” FOOD INDULGENCE? Peanut M&Ms THING TO DO IN YOUR SPARE TIME? Biking THING ABOUT WORKING IN SCHOOL NUTRITION? Working with caring, dedicated colleagues PLACE YOU HAVE VISITED? Belize Rainforest TIME OF DAY? Morning MEAL TO COOK AT HOME? Any “celebration” meal SCHOOL FOOD AS A KID? Apple or cherry crisp SCHOOL SUBJECT? Quantity Foods Six More Questions 1 One food I’ve never developed a taste for is… sushi. 2 My dream dinner guests are… Barack & Michelle Obama. 3 One thing you don’t know about me is… I’m an introvert. 4 If I could change one thing about myself, it would be… to have more patience. 5 The talent I would most like to have is… a good singing voice! 6 If I didn’t work in school nutrition, I would be… an elementary school principal. Advice for Jean As new SNA President Jean Ronnei embarks on her year-long term, some close friends and colleagues have a few words of wisdom for her. “Embrace the journey! It ends too quickly. Be bold. Be courageous. Be positive.”—Julia Bauscher, SNS, 2014-15 SNA President “Stay true to yourself. I hope [you] can see how [your] influence has already shaped the important changes in child nutrition programs, which will impact generations who live longer, healthier lives.”—Stacy Koppen, MS, RD, SPPS Nutrition Services Director “I hope [you] can share [your] talents and skills with many other school districts to improve the quality of life for all students. My advice is to make sure [you] balance work and [your] personal life.”—Valeria S. Silva, SPPS Superintendent Bonus Web Content School Nutrition is making this profile of new SNA President Jean Ronnei available in Spanish. If you or someone you know would like to read a Spanish translation of this article, you will find a link on the magazine’s Bonus Web Content Archives page on SNA’s website, www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazine/bonuswebcontent. Additionally, check out Jean’s recipe for Family Cookies, also available as SN bonus web content. Contenido Adicional La School Nutrition a creado el perfil del nuevo Presidente de SNA, Jean Ronnei, disponible en español. Si usted o alguien que usted conoce desea leer la traducción en español de este artículo, lo encontrará en el enlace en la página del Bonus Web Content en el sitio web de SNA, www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazine/bonuswebcontent. Además, échale un vistazo a la receta de las galletas de Jean, la encontrarás disponible en el contenido adicional de nuestra página Web.
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