By Mark Ward, SR., PHD 2016-04-05 05:27:56
Fresh ideas boost business for FAME winners. Meet Ken Yant Current Title: Director of School Nutrition City, State: Suwanee, Georgia Favorite School Lunch as a Kid: Chicken nuggets, mashed potatoes and gravy Profession You’d Choose if not School Nutrition: Lawyer Top of Your Bucket List: Skydiving Dream Dinner Guest: Ronald Reagan Hobbies: Ohio State football, being outdoors/walking Over the past generation, school nutrition professionals have come to realize the extent to which their work crosses into other disciplines. It’s foodservice, yes, but also nutrition, management, finance and more. “To stay on top of developments in all these fields,” muses Ken Yant, SNS, winner of the 2016 FAME Silver Leadership Award and director of School Nutrition for Gwinnett County (Ga.) Public Schools, “It’s important to interact with and learn from others” in the profession. Yet, as school nutrition directors are increasingly cast in the role of running their own “businesses,” Yant continues, “It’s also important that we look to best practices beyond foodservice and learn from other professions.” Yant doesn’t just look past the K-12 segment for fresh approaches—he looks beyond foodservice completely. The Imitation Game Consider procurement practices, for example. In the construction industry, building owners often solicit not only price bids, but also require contractors to spell out their qualifications, as a better-built structure will increase rental income and decrease operating costs. Despite having spent his entire career in foodservice, Yant was willing to take a fresh look at his “business” when hired by Gwinnett County in 2006 to lead the nutrition department at the nation’s 12th-largest school district. He hired a full-time procurement director with experence in purchasing non-food goods and services, who was recruited from a government agency. Then, the team switched from a traditional bidding process to an increasingly popular variation in which vendors respond to a formal Request for Proposal (RFP). “Using a weighted formula, the RFP process allows us to consider factors such as vendor service and performance, as well as product quality and availability, along withprice,” Yant explains. “Overall competition has actually increased, so we procure the best products and services at the right price, in the right quantities, from the right partner,at the best value.” Gwinnett’s procurement process is coupled with savvy inventory management. As student-driven menus are developed by Yant and his team, procurement is geared to supplying only the items needed to support the menus. A cross-utilization scheme also helps keep inventory under control, as the department has created a list of base items that can be used in multiple recipes. “What we essentially do,” he relates, “is not only identify what items are needed in our pantries, but what items are not needed.” The fiscal results of Yant’s innovations are impressive. On an annual budget of about $90 million, the new procurement system has saved up to $585,000 per year when compared to the old bidding process. Equipped for Success Yant is even more focused on human resources. His department’s 1,600 employees each receive at least 20 hours of training per year. Much of it comes from a team of eight training managers, each responsible for 16 of the district’s 130 schools. Upward mobility is, likewise, encouraged through an Aspiring Managers Program. “We need to build our bench,” he affirms, to ensure that the next generation of managers is at the ready to continue the success of the program. Facing a large need for labor and problem with chronic understaffing, Yant in 2013 again took a cue from other industries and outsourced recruitment to a national educational staffing agency. “Nutrition, not recruitment, is our core business,” he says. “So why not let people who are expert recruiters do that for us? Now we’re kept fully staffed.” Yant has also made staff positions attractive by channeling some of his procurement savings into hourly wage increases. His gig in metro Atlanta is a far cry from Yant’s first job as a 15-year-old busboy in small-town Ohio. A 1988 degree in business administration led to a number of various positions with foodservice management companies. This career path culminated with a posted at a school district near Columbus, Ohio, 2000. “The school environment suited me,” he recalls. “So when I finished my MBA in 2005, I thought about what might come next. When I saw the Gwinnett County job advertised on the SNA website, I immediately applied. I thought it would be a dream job—and it has!” Meet Tamara Earl Current Title: Supervisor of Child Nutrition City, State: Mason, Ohio Favorite School Lunch as a Kid: Grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup Profession You’d Choose if not School Nutrition: Food scientist Book by Your Bedside: Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges by Amy Cuddy Top of Your Bucket List: Take a food and wine tour of Europe Hobbies: Reading, dining with friends, “being an awesome grandma” Tamara Earl, SNS, winner of the 2016 FAME Silver Rising Star Award and supervisor of Child Nutrition for Mason (Ohio) City Schools, remembers her first exposure to the profession. “I finished my degree in food management, got married, moved to a big city in a new state and applied for a job at the school district,” she recalls. “When I didn’t get an interview, I figured school foodservice wasn’t a possible career for me.” Life went on for Earl as she worked in college dining, hospital foodservice and, later, at the telephone company. She worked part-time for the next 15 years while raising a family. In 1998, she took a full-time position with Mason City Schools—but not in school nutrition. “I worked for the facilities department, and I’m glad I did,” Earl explains. “I got to know every inch of our six school buildings and the employees who worked in them.” Two years later, her boss, Darlene Hicks, made a lateral move from operations supervisor to head of child nutrition. Needing an assistant, she asked Earl to join her. “Darlene and I worked together for 11 years in school nutrition before she retired after 35 years in the school system,” Earl reports. When Earl was named her successor, “I was so excited to have a chance like that in midlife—with a career I once thought was closed to me. In fact, I’ve been excited every day since!” An Easy Transition Earl’s shift to a leadership role was eased by the relationships she had formed with managers and staff during 11 years as assistant supervisor. “I’d known everyone for quite a while, and we’d already been through a lot as a team,” she explains. Earl’s excitement shows in the innovations she has launched as supervisor. When the USDA mandated new meal patterns with stricter regulations for lunch, she faced a quandary: Students were accustomed to taking a meal rather than building a meal before they could sit down to eat. So, using the new MyPlate concept that replaced the old Food Pyramid, she developed a strategy to overcome new challenges. First, Earl provided a full day of training for her staff, which featured a game show-type activity, complete with prizes. The fun and creativity among the team continues as Earl recruited staff members, teachers and three first-grade classes to produce a video for an original tune, “Let’s All Go to the Lunchroom,” demonstrating how students could put together a nutritionally complete lunch plate by choosing items from the different food groups (See “Lights, Camera… Lunch!” Marketing Notebook, April 2013). The Payoff At the high school alone, more than 2,700 servings of fresh fruits and vegetables are now served daily, up 25% since 2014. Additionally, after creating cashless lines and adding five new points of service, queues are down and lunch sales are up 15%. Meanwhile, breakfast has been introduced in all six district schools, and since grab-and-go breakfast carts were installed at school entrances, participation has more than tripled. Such accomplishments are impressive in a suburban Cincinnati district where only 8% of students are eligible for free and reduced-priced meals. “Because I started my school nutrition career in midlife,” Earl relates, “I feel like I’ve got one shot at making the most of it.” For that reason, she plunged into Association involvement, serving last year as president of the School Nutrition Association of Ohio and now currently serving a three-year term on the national SNA Bylaws and Resolutions Committee. Earl is perhaps most proud of the fact that some 500 students per year receive nutrition education directly from her department. “It symbolizes all that we’re trying to accomplish, which is to build bridges that connect us to students’ lives outside school walls. Maybe we can’t by ourselves change the social ills that can hold our kids back. But we can change school so that every child who comes in our doors enters a place where good things happen by design.” Mark Ward is a freelance writer in Victoria, Texas.
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