By Mark Ward Sr., PHD 2015-07-24 01:56:09
Meet Gay Anderson Growing up in Bismarck, N.D., Gay Anderson, SNS, was the fifth of six children. “I didn’t do anything in the kitchen,” she says, recalling the early days. “I had three older sisters, and by the time I was old enough to try cooking, my mother wanted her kitchen back!” Nonetheless, it wasn’t long before Anderson, now child nutrition director and wellness coordinator for Brandon Valley (S.D.) School District, got “hooked on foodservice.” What was going to be a year’s work break after high school and before starting college turned into nine years managing franchise restaurants throughout Bismarck. “I just loved interacting with people,” she explains. After marrying and starting a family, Anderson gave up the frenetic pace of the restaurant trade and moved into hospital foodservice in 1987. Then, 15 years later, when her husband was being transferred to Sioux Falls, S.D., she serendipitously discovered school nutrition. “I checked out the local school districts to see if they had any foodservice jobs open,” Anderson recounts. As it happened, the director in Brandon had just resigned. The district liked the experience she brought to the table—so much so that they “held the job open an entire year for me, until I could move our family to Sioux Falls.” Big Dreams, Big Skies The job was also worth the wait for Anderson. “I absolutely loved school nutrition from the start—the difference I could make for our kids, the variety, the problem-solving, the interaction, the great possibilities,” she relates. “As a mid-career professional, I felt reenergized.” In her first month on the job, Anderson attended a meeting of her local SNA chapter. “That made me realize how much I had to learn, but also how much professional networking and sharing ideas were the keys to success,” she affirms. “So I joined SNA that same night—and, as often happens in smaller states, I was asked two years later to start ‘moving through the chairs’ toward a term as state president.” Anderson served as president of SNA of South Dakota in 2007-08. Not long after, she moved to the national stage, being elected to volunteer leadership positions as SNA Midwest Regional Director (2011-13) and Education Committee Chair (2013-15). “Every time I attend a function, I still get at least one new idea,” she enthuses about the ongoing professional benefits of her SNA experiences. “Also, my involvement over the years has helped me grow as a person.” Incredibly, despite the demands of her job and her association responsibilities, Anderson found time to complete another milestone in her professional and personal development. “I was only going to take a year off after high school before starting college,” she recounts. “But then life happened, and that year turned into decades. But this last spring, I finally earned my bachelor’s degree in business and now have plans to work toward an MBA.” Right-Sized for Rewards This attitude of improvement and innovation has guided Anderson’s perspectives on the job. Though her program serves “only” six schools, she says, “It’s all how we look at it. We’re actually the fifth-largest district in South Dakota! The key is not having the mindset of ‘Oh, we’re only a small district.’” She embraces the opportunities, rather than focusing on the limitations. For example, Anderson notes, “Compared to a major-city district, we have fewer bureaucratic layers and thus more flexibility.” Last year, she piloted a “second-chance” breakfast program that went so well, it will be rolled out next fall to all four elementary schools. She established a new food kiosk at the middle school, boosted student participation. Instead of bemoaning her district’s small size, in 2013, she recruited other South Dakota directors to launch the state’s first school nutrition purchasing cooperative. It’s one thing to be small—Anderson also faces the challenges of working in a very rural area. There are fewer food distributors serving the market. Shipping times can be longer—and costs consequently higher. While Anderson can afford to equip each of her six schools with full kitchens, she finds it hard to staff them. In a sparsely populated rural area, there’s significant demand for qualified labor. Still, Anderson thrives on the opportunities and the challenges. “It’s great,” she says, “that even at my age, I can keep learning and growing!” Current Title: Child Nutrition Director and Wellness Coordinator City, State: Brandon, South Dakota Magazine at Your Bedside: School Nutrition Top of Your Bucket List: Take a two-week Alaskan cruise Dream Dinner Guest: Abraham Lincoln Favorite Subject in School: Reading Meet Curtistine Walker Curtistine Walker, a 28-year veteran of the foodservice program at Pittsburgh Public Schools and, since 2012, its director, brings a genuine sense of continuity to her role. And, yet, she has also been first to see the need for changes. “When I started in 1987, a typical meal was Salisbury steak, mashed potatoes and gravy,” she recalls. “We were an institutional meal service providing comfort food. Today, a typical offering might be a chicken salad wrap. And because urban kids today are more sophisticated and health-conscious, they want food made fresh.” It’s not an easy challenge to meet. Years ago, when the foodservice program was charged with supporting itself, a central kitchen was built to control production costs through the satelliting of meals. “But now,” reports Walker, “boosting participation requires more onsite preparation.” So far, she has installed production kitchens in 11 of the district’s 54 schools, but completing the project will take time. Still, the move toward onsite preparation helps her meet another challenge. “Since we’re in an urban setting, we have students from diverse backgrounds,” Walker explains. “One standard menu won’t do the trick. Onsite preparation will give us more flexibility to tailor meals to the constituencies of our different schools.” City Smarts A native of the Pittsburgh metro area, Walker grew up in a community-minded family. Her father was a school administrator who rose to deputy superintendent, while her mother directed a local Head Start program. When Walker later enrolled at Pennsylvania State University, her interests in education and practical living skills combined to earn her a 1982 degree in home economics. But with more graduates in home economics entering the job market than there were available teaching positions, Walker initially tried her hand at restaurant management and vocational education. Her big break came in 1987. “Somebody told my dad that the Pittsburgh school system was looking for a foodservice production coordinator,” Walker remembers. When she got the position, she was thrilled. “In college, I was never told that school nutrition was an option for home ec majors,” she attests. “But I was so excited to have a manager’s job with teacher’s hours. It gave me the time to earn a master’s degree and to be involved in my church and my community.” Walker also recalls how her former director “wanted all the supervisory staff to join SNA at the state and national levels.” She didn’t hesitate, taking advantage of networking and professional education opportunities. “Getting involved was great, because SNA was the only way for me to interact with other major-city managers who faced the same challenges I did,” she notes. Within 18 months, Walker had been promoted to area coordinator. She earned that master’s degree from Penn State in 1992 and, a year later, was named operations coordinato. In the ensuing years, she was twice passed over for the department’s top spot when the powers that be opted to hire from outside the district. “That was OK,” she insists, “because I loved the job I had.” But in 2012, the district decided to promote from within. Life in the Big City Despite the demands of her job—and serving twice (2003-04 and 2011-12) as president of SNA of Pennsylvania—Walker has stayed committed to work-life balance. Among her many community involvements are the Junior League of Pittsburgh, Negro Business and Professional Clubs, Women’s Achievement Club, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and her church choir. In the meantime, she’ll keep looking ahead and training future leaders. “Then replacing me when the time comes will take care of itself.” After all, Walker notes, compared to when she started out, “I see a lot more interest among our local college students and interns in school nutrition as a career. We need new blood and greater diversity to keep progressing.” Current Title: Director of Food Service City, State: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Nickname: “Curt” Profession You’d Choose if not School Nutrition: Vocational education teacher Top of Your Bucket List: Direct a nonprofit organization Dream Dinner Guest: Oprah Winfrey (“We were born on the the same day five years apart”) Favorite Subject in School: Poetry Mark Ward is a freelance writer in Victoria, Texas.
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