Betti Wiggins SNA Member Since 1989 » Detroit, Michigan What a year Betti Wiggins is enjoying! She’s earned a trifecta of top school nutrition honors: FAME Golden School Foodservice Director of the Year, 2017 School Nutrition Hero and the IFMA Silver Plate Award for Elementary and Secondary Schools. These awards recognize her as a passionate, outspoken advocate for children and a community leader. In her most recent position with Detroit Public Schools Community District, she transformed the school meals operation, while establishing the Detroit School Garden Collaborative, which placed raised-bed gardens at 82 school sites. At press time, Wiggins announced her next venture as the assistant superintendent for Nutritional Services at Houston (Texas) Independent School District, slated to begin this month. Here, she shares insights gained from her singularly colorful career. On Leadership As the executive director of Detroit’s Office of School Nutrition, I didn’t have an office with my name on the door and all that pomp and circumstance. In fact, I didn’t even have a door. My desk was in the waiting area, so when people came in, I was the first person to greet visitors and guests. If I was to describe my leadership skills and how my team and I achieved the goals of our program, it’s because I know who I am and my employees know who I am. I worked for seven years as a foodservice director for Marriott School Services. Bill Marriott, chair of the international corporation, used to come to Detroit and interact with the young managers. He would always say, “You take care of the employees and the employees will take care of the customer and the customer will take care of all of us.” Bill Marriott taught me to value and respect my employees. I let them know that I am here to serve them. At Detroit Public Schools, I was responsible for school meals administration, management and operations at 141 schools in the greater metropolitan area. I knew I was only as good as the 589 employees around me. Together, we fed over 85,000 meals to K-12 students every day. I have learned not to be territorial, so I always tell my staff that I can only control the space between my outstretched arms! Many of them have seen directors come and go over the years. Some have treated them badly and some of have treated them well; I ask them to tell me about the most effective programs they had and about what worked. I listen to them; I train them in the skills they need to succeed; and I let them participate in the decision-making process as much as I can, because nine times out of ten, their ideas are better than mine. I learned a long time ago that I can’t accomplish everything by myself. But when we work collaboratively, that is when we get the best results. On Challenges The biggest challenge I personally have had to overcome is me! I am very proud to say that I have been fired five times over the course of my foodservice career, but never for doing a poor job or for the wrong reasons. In each case, I was placed in a very difficult situation, with programs that were all asunder. I was able to rebuild the programs and improve foodservice and nutritional values dramatically. In Detroit, for example, kids are no longer eating corn dogs, French fries or chips—that’s carnival food—they are now eating lean meat and locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables. They’re being fed fresh Michigan Asparagus, and you know what? They like it! I did a lot of very good things for each program where I lost my job, but let’s say that I was a bit overzealous and pushed the envelope too much. Sometimes I start talking and let intuitive things happen. Other people call it aggressive, but it was just assertion. I don’t have time [to be diplomatic]; I always feel like there are milestones that I need to achieve and in order to get things done, I can’t waste time. So, sometimes I think it is just impatience that gets the best of me. Detroit Public Schools fired me in 2000, but after realizing how I had successfully rebuilt the program, they rehired me in 2008. I had been there ever since, until I was recruited to become assistant superintendent for Nutritional Services at Houston Independent School District; I start this month. On Goals My Detroit team often said to me, “When you leave Detroit Public Schools, the program is going to collapse.” And I would say, “That’s not true, because that would mean that I have not developed any skills or talent among my staff.” I believe programs are not built around the director, they are built around the mission. Staff should not be serving the director, they should be serving the goals and objectives of the program, which over time can change. It was Martin Luther King, Jr., who once said, “I would like to live a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now.” Because of my age, I thought that I had achieved all of my goals and did not think there was anything else left to accomplish. But, as I look around today at all these young people working in foodservice who are looking for a role model, my goal now is to pass on whatever knowledge I have that is going to be beneficial to them. I want to train people not to think the way that I think, but to train people to conceptualize and have their own value system to operate under their own set of measurables. As told to Doug Scott, a contributing editor to School Nutrition. 30-SECOND BIO CHILDHOOD HOMETOWN Detroit, Michigan EDUCATION B.S., Family and Consumer Resources, Wayne State University, Detroit, Mich.; Certified Public Manager, George Washington University YEARS IN SCHOOL NUTRITION 26 NEW TITLE Assistant Superintendent for Nutrition Services NEW EMPLOYER Houston (Texas) Independent School District (HISD) PROGRAM AT A GLANCE HISD is the seventh-largest public school district, with 287 schools serving 215,000 students; it offers the largest breakfast in the classroom program in the country; it is transitioning to self-operation after a 20-year relationship with Aramark SNA LEADERSHIP State President, District of Columbia FAMILY One son, Sherman, and a host of nieces and nephews
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