School Nutrition Association May 2017 : Page 36

Welcome Back--School to to Arm yourself with three tools you’ll need to face common new year challenges. 36 | SN | May 2017 “School” BY PATRICIA L. FITZGERALD

Welcome to Back-to-School “School”

By Patricia L. Fitzgerald

Arm yourself with three tools you’ll need to face common new year challenges.

Good morning, class! I’m delighted to see that so many of you have signed up for this course on how you and your school nutrition team can survive the many challenges associated with opening cafeterias and kitchens and welcoming students to the new academic year. You’ve already taken an important first step forward: You aren’t waiting around until the end of the summer to get started!

Now, I want to begin with a caution—this is a very difficult subject. If you’re expecting an easy “A,” think again. You may only get through a single module this year, and that’s okay. In fact, I encourage you to identify just one special project that you will work on in the coming months, in order to give it your full attention. Yes, that means that you could be enrolled in this curriculum for several years before you graduate. But I can assure you that you will feel immense satisfaction each time you solve a target problem and subsequently earn high marks from your boss, staff, partners and customers.

For this introductory lesson, I will focus on three key tools you will need to succeed in meeting your back-to-school challenges. You won’t find these resources in the bookstore or online. You can’t borrow them from a classmate. They are skillsets that lie within—you just need to learn how to hone and apply them to this endeavor. Let’s begin.

1.) Awareness

This first tool is deceptively simple. You have so many challenges in school nutrition, and most of you find that you just keep rolling from one to the next and the next after that. It’s easy to be boxed into living in the moment—something that we encourage when it comes to appreciating the wonders of life, but not necessarily helpful in the strategic resolution of systemic problems. If you spend all your time and attention in “fighting fires,” to use a common metaphor, you won’t be able to determine solutions that will prevent them from cropping up repeatedly in the first place.

Sometimes you just need someone like me to ask the question: What are your top challenges during back-to-school season? It allows you to stop focusing on the crisis of the moment, take a breath and give it some thought. That break can, in turn, lead to a helpful internal dialogue: “This is a challenge I face every year. Am I just going to put it out of mind and deal with it when August/September rolls around? Or is now a good opportunity to tackle it head-on and see if I can lift this annual weight from my shoulders?”

So, let me ask the question. Who can tell me a common back-to-school challenge? Let’s see…Wanda? “Staffing.” Good; I imagine that many of you run into that one each year. Kaye, I see you nodding vigorously. Let’s gather some others. How about you, Mark? “I.T. problems.” I can well imagine! Cindy? “Staff education.” Yes, Todd, do you have something to add? “That can be a real headache, especially with Professional Standards requirements.” I agree! Who else has one? Stephanie, I see your hand raised. “Equipment failures.” Good! “Also, processing free/reduced applications.” Ahh, yes, I see a lot of heads nodding for that one.

Now, as if you didn’t have enough to address already, I must note that it’s still important to raise your own awareness about some of the less-obvious challenges of the season. These may not seem on par with, say, labor shortages, but they can weigh you down and make you less effective in managing the other problems associated with this time of year. Do you have an example to share, Deborah? “A culture that doesn’t prioritize teamwork.” Oh, now that’s very interesting! How about you, Angela? “Responding to questions from the parents of kindergartners.” These are excellent examples, and we’ll come back to all of these in a few minutes.

HOMEWORK: Right now, I’d like you to get out your notebooks to record your first assignment: Make a list of all of the challenges you and your team face that are related specifically to the back-to-school season. In fact, you may want to work with your supervisors and managers to compile this list. Don’t hold back, because you don’t want to overlook an area that deserves to be addressed.

Once you complete your list, get out your markers. Using red (or another color of your choice), place a checkmark next to the top four that fill you with the most dread or frustration each year. Now, take a blue (or other second color) marker and, reviewing the complete list, check the top four areas that you think you have the resources to address, if you and your team were able to prioritize the time and attention. Are there items that have two checkmarks? These are good places to begin—and begin now.

BONUS PROJECT: Take a third color marker to identify areas that do require numerous strategic steps and outside partners to accomplish. For example, applications processing may be high on your frustration list, but a satisfactory resolution will involve budget dollars for software, as well as cooperation from both the district’s I.T. department and your state agency. Categorizing these types of challenges can help you to identify the long-term priorities that should be incorporated into department goals, budgets and ongoing discussions.

Again, I encourage you to conduct these exercises with your supervisory team. There are many benefits to involving them in this discovery process. You engage their interest and accountability in the problems and the solutions. Plus, these team members may raise your awareness about unknown priorities, as well as be the source of fresh strategies for meeting the challenge.

2.) Creativity

Sages assert that “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results” is one definition of insanity. How many of you start another back-to-school season facing the same frustrating challenges and address them with the same less-than-satisfying tactics just to get through it? Come on now, you should all be raising your hands and admitting this truth.

This is another consequence of staying so focused on managing the most immediate problems that you fail to get ahead of problems you know are coming down the line. I’m not suggesting that it’s easy to make the time for anything that isn’t absolutely critical today. It’s not. The first step in sharpening your creative, problem-solving skills is to prioritize the time needed for that process. I’ll offer some tips about this when we get to your homework assignment.

You won’t solve anything if you aren’t willing to look at the problem and the potential resolutions with a creative eye. I’m not just talking about those who can be “creative” when it comes to wordplay, cafeteria decorations or culinary concoctions. I’m referencing those who understand the value of an open mind, who are willing to try—even if it means failing—and who continually ask, “What if?”

Let’s take time for a few examples of solving a back-to-school headache. Let’s start with staffing. Angela, I believe you have done a lot of work in this area. Would you describe how you’ve addressed this problem?

“The economy in our county is booming, so you can quit today and have a job with a better salary tomorrow. While we still have the best benefits, our hourly wage isn’t great. Many potential employees haven’t had the high school diploma or GED our district requires for all staff, even substitutes. The background check is another hurdle. You had a DUI 10 years ago? You won’t be working for Los Lunas Schools. We had one applicant we wanted to hire who stole a sixpack of beer in 1959 when he was 16 and HR declined to hire him!

“We’ve started advertising on social media. Our most successful hires come from district staff recommendations. Teachers often have former students who are job hunting and they recommend us as an employer. We also speak with parents at summer meal sites. We recruit constantly. My business card has the email address of our online application printed on the back and I give it to anyone I meet with great customer service skills. We’ve picked up three employees that way.

“When we’re short staffed, we offer fewer choices and make some menu switches that require less labor. Other staff pitch in. My warehouse team is getting really good at serving lunch and breakfast, while central office staff often act as cashiers and stay to help clean up. Principals have been great in offering staff help, too. One principal loves serving lunch so much that she actually tries to schedule herself to serve at least twice a week! Ask for help—it’s amazing how many people will step up.”

Kaye, would you like to share how you addressed staffing shortages in your district?

“Our problem has been in having substitute help. For years, one person acted as the foodservices secretary and the middle school cashier. When this individual retired, I split the position and hired two people, keeping the total hours the same. But with a more flexible schedule, the secretary can pitch in as a substitute and it’s really lessened that headache.”

Mark, I can imagine it’s difficult to address annual I.T. problems because, typically, they are not something in your control. How have you made this less of a seasonal headache for the school nutrition team in upstate New York?

“I.T. upgrades and adds new computers, smartboards, servers, routers and wifi in the summer. It doesn’t leave them much time for our tech priorities. That’s why I make it a point to meet with the head of I.T. before school ends. This allows me to learn their summer workload, determine if and how it will impact foodservice, offer my help, explain the needs of our program and request a timeline for getting our work done. Then, I regularly check in over the summer, confirming status and schedule—and thanking them for all they do! We start testing our systems two weeks before school starts, then again one week out and then three days before. This gives us a chance to communicate our concerns to I.T. If all else fails, we’ll have that roster and cashbox ready!”

We have time for one more short example. Deborah, I was intrigued by your comment about teamwork troubles. Could you elaborate?

“When I started in school nutrition, in another district 25 years ago, as ‘lunch ladies’ moved up to managerial roles, they became increasingly protective of their expertise, failing to cross-train others, calling it their ‘job security.’ I worked to change that attitude and emphasize the value of training the generation that comes after us. We changed the culture to a genuine team approach, one that encourages as much learning as each person is capable of, and that district became known as one of the best school nutrition departments in the state.”

HOMEWORK: Open your calendar and select two days each month for the next six months and reserve these for creative planning and problem-solving. The goal is to do this once a month, but I’m suggesting you set aside two dates to give you flexibility, since it’s likely that life will intervene and a cancellation may be necessary. Mark these dates on every calendar you use— and that others use to schedule meetings with you. You can treat these days as you would prearranged business travel or vacation or other dates you plan way in advance. As you get closer, decide whether you will spend the day alone in a quiet, singular brainstorming session or whether you want to work with other members of the team. Do what’s best for you, but make that time a priority.

BONUS PROJECT: I also want you to create both paper and electronic folders for “Ideas.” Similarly, put a small notebook in your purse and/or install a “Notes” app on your smartphone (be sure it backs up regularly). Now, you will have no excuse not to record neat ideas and “what if” light bulb moments when they happen. This collection will be an invaluable resource when you are ready to tackle your next project.

3.) Patience

This is the final critical tool for getting through back-to-school season. There’s only so much that is within your control and there are many variables at work. It won’t serve you or anyone around you to lose your cool. Things will go wrong—but schools will open anyway. People won’t show up—but kids will get fed anyway. You will be stressed—but the day will end, you will get a good night’s rest and start again in the morning.

HOMEWORK: Simply keep reminding yourself to be patient with others and with yourself, too. Say “please.” Say “thank you.” Remember to breathe. Perhaps you’ll want to wear a piece of jewelry that serves as such a reminder, display a mindful poster in the office or kitchen, place a sticky note on the rearview mirror of your car or install a “mindful app” on your smartphone.

I will look forward to hearing back from many of you about the progress you are making on your homework assignments. I think you will find that getting started now, rather than waiting until the new school year is almost upon you, is an essential first step. Before you know it, you will have earned your degree in Back-to-School “School”! Class dismissed.


Many thanks to the inaugural class of Back-to-School “School,” who offered their awareness, creativity and patience for this article.

» Todd Bedenbaugh, Director of Student Nutrition, Lexington School District 05, S.C.

» Mark Bordeau, SNS, Senior School Lunch Director, Broome-Tioga Board of Cooperative Educational Services, N.Y.

» Wanda Brandon, Assistant Director of Child Nutrition, Hinds County School District, Miss.

» Stephanie Dillard, SNS, Child Nutrition Director, Geneva County School District, Ala.

» Angela Haney, SNS, Student Nutrition Director, Los Lunas Schools, N.M.

» Cindy Jensen, Food & Nutrition Services Director, School District of New Berlin, Wis.

» Deborah Taylor, RDN, SNS, Associate Director of School Nutrition Services, Oklahoma City Public Schools

» Kaye Wetli, SNS, Food Services Supervisor, Riverview School District, Duvall, Wash.

I think you will find that getting started now, rather than waiting until the new school year is almost upon you, is an essential first step.


Welcome to Back-to-School “School”

In this month’s online extras, our “student teachers” share more creative best practice ideas for solving their back-to-school frustrations.

Visit to access.

Patricia Fitzgerald is editor of SN.

Read the full article at

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