By Kelsey Casselbury 2017-06-15 09:54:41
The newest generation of school nutrition professionals isn’t satisfied with the status quo. But creating effective change requires a tricky balancing act between pursuing innovation and respecting veteran experience. DESPITE CONTINUAL EFFORTS TO SHOWCASE THE SCHOOL NUTRITION PROFESSION AS ONE FULL OF DIVERSITY, VITALITY AND PASSION, the image persists of older ladies in hairnets. While there’s no denying that the age demographic in school nutrition skews higher than some other foodservice segments, there’s a cohort of younger folk that are often overlooked—until they slip in, almost unnoticed. After all, no profession can survive without fresh faces stepping into leadership roles at some point. One major problem: School nutrition isn’t a natural first-choice career for most young people. In fact, too many qualified dietitians, managers, chefs, cooks and administrators (as well as other essential members of a K-12 foodservice team) don’t know that it’s even an option when starting or even completing their professional training. If younger professionals do find their way into school nutrition early, they soon discover that managing the myriad challenges in this complex business often leaves little time—or appetite—for cultivating a culture of change. After all, they are typically working with, or even supervising, staff members who have “seen it all.” Clearly, cafeteria veterans have hard-earned wisdom when it comes to school meals—and theirs can be a valuable perspective. This means that young school nutrition professionals have an added challenge to the job: balance their zeal for change with deference to the insights of more-experienced colleagues. How do they do it? School Nutrition turned to a group of young professionals to find out. DISCOVERING SCHOOL NUTRITION Young or old, most of the directors, supervisors, dietitians and other administrators in K-12 school nutrition tend to encounter this profession in one of two ways. If they majored in nutrition, dietetics or hospitality management in college, an internship rotation requirement introduced them to school meals operations. Or they may have gravitated to school nutrition as a second career, dissatisfied with the detractions of commercial foodservice, clinical nutrition or other related occupations. Often, the K-12 opportunity simply appears at the “right” time. But every career journey is unique in its own way. That includes the one taken by Carlee Johnson, 31, foodservice director, Petersburg (Alaska) School District. Prior to discovering the K-12 segment, she had worked in a variety of foodservice positions, most recently teaching culinary arts to convicts at a women’s prison as part of an apprenticeship program. Johnson was astounded to learn from many women convicted of substance abuse charges that they initially turned to drugs to help with weight loss—and this continued to be a factor while incarcerated and after release. “I noticed that many people are not taught proper portion size or what are healthy [meals]—thus, teaching them how to eat properly was crucial in their recovery,” she says. This experience led to Johnson’s desire to start teaching healthy habits to children. Born, raised and working in Montana, when Johnson learned of the school position in Alaska, she didn’t hesitate. She picked up and moved “on a whim,” she recounts. “I tend to do crazy things, and once I make my decision, I stick with it.” Erin Brattain, RD, 30, assistant food-services supervisor in Noblesville (IN) Schools, took another path. Although she was no stranger to the foodservice business—she started at age 13—Brattain came to schools through the dietetics path, rejecting opportunities in the more common health-care setting. It was her mother-in-law, who worked as a cafeteria manager at a high school, who first opened Brattain’s eyes to the possibilities available. Then, “I spent one month during my dietetic internship at a large school district, and that is where I fell in love with the profession,” she remembers. “For about a year and a half, I worked part-time at that district, while also working at a local hospital with diabetic patients. The position slowly transitioned from 20 to 30 to 40 hours.” OUR CHANGING WORLD Then, there are some school nutrition opportunities particularly well-suited to the younger generation. Consider the case of Stefanie Dove, RD, CDN, 32, school nutrition marketing specialist with Loudoun County (Va.) Public Schools, who focuses on social media in a position that likely never would have existed 20—or even 10—years ago. Her age and status as a digital native gives her distinct advantages. Dove has had a computer in her home since she was in kindergarten; she grew up with the Internet; and she’s adopted each social media outlet as it launched. “I enjoy social media because that is what I have known since I was 10,” Dove shares. “What I love about technology is that it’s constantly changing.” Of course, the ability to be flexible and change is vital in society, in general—and in business settings, in particular. Johnson perceives that, as part of the younger crowd, she’s a bit more responsive to change than some of the more seasoned members of her individual team or among colleagues in neighboring districts. “Every time there is a new guideline or policy, I am able to adapt, understand the reasoning behind the change and move forward,” she explains. “I find that being able to access more technology makes it easier for me to grasp an understanding that could possibly help facilitate the changes that are required.” That’s Johnson’s reflective position. Fundamentally, however, she’s a bit more blunt: “The phrase, ‘We have always done it that way,’ really does not sit well with me.” This attitude is shared by Molly Brandt, RD, SNS, 38, nutrition services director, Adams 12 Five Star Schools, Thornton, Colo., who thinks that younger professionals can bring a fresh perspective to the table. Of course, the reception to decisions and actions that challenge the status quo can be mixed at best. But Brandt’s position can be summed up best by a quote from Albert Einstein: “We cannot solve our problems using the same thinking we used when we created them.” In any profession, not just school nutrition, younger leaders who are on the rise will encounter the challenge of supervising employees who are senior in age or tenure or both, but not in job position level. Discomfort and change are the name of the game. The secret, as for any boss of any age, is to be flexible with the varying professional needs and preferences of your team. It doesn’t have to be a one-size-fits-all, “my way or the highway” structure. “Everyone responds differently,” notes Johnson of, in this case, communication styles. “I know I must verbally inform my salad bar cook about tasks, while I can send a text message to my [general] cook. It’s important to know that we are not all the same.” THE MAGIC OF MENTORS Of course, the generation gap isn’t always characterized by a struggle of wills and a butting of heads. In fact, working with experienced school nutrition veterans can provide younger professionals with a potent mix of inspiration and invaluable perspective. And, in many cases, it can lead to the benefits of gaining a generous and supportive mentor. Dove, for example, has learned so much from her boss, SNA President Becky Domokos-Bays, PhD, RD, SNS. “I am fortunate to have Becky as my director,” Dove expresses. “I always pick her brain and ask for her advice. She has been in this field for 30 years, so she provides wonderful insight.” The trust relationship Dove and Domokos-Bays have forged through mutual respect and admiration means that Dove isn’t continually frustrated, even when her fresh ideas aren’t given the green light. Dove recognizes that she has raised some “up in the clouds” ideas with her boss, and she appreciates how Domokos-Bays handles them. “She helps to bring them down to what’s practical and attainable, while being supportive at the same time,” Dove credits. R-E-S-P-E-C-T When you’re a fresh-faced newbie, it’s not always easy to be taken seriously on a professional level. “The biggest challenge I tend to face is that most assume that, because you are younger, you do not have experience,” notes Dove, frustrated when a lack of experience gets translated as a lack of credibility or value. “Most of the time, I am told that it’s difficult for [veteran employees] to follow [my] directives, because I am viewed as someone who reminds them of their child.” And while Dove may not have the same breadth of experience as many of her school nutrition colleagues, it’s not as though she’s a naive or immature college graduate. “What most don’t realize is that many young professionals like me began our careers at the height of the economic crash in 2008,” she explains. “This resulted in many of our first professional positions being ones that combined two to three different roles” as budgets were tightened. Dove and her contemporaries were thrown into the deep end of the pool. The fact that they didn’t sink or merely tread water should earn them more respect, they believe. For Laura Duba, RD, LN, 27, child nutrition director of Brookings (S.D.) School District, it’s not about convincing her colleagues in her district, fellow directors in her area or her mentor, SNA Vice President Gay Anderson, SNS, that she’s up to the challenges of her school nutrition job. They’ve got her back. No, Duba is facing more frustrations in being taken seriously within the leadership structure of her state Association. Nonetheless, she will be installed in July as president of SNA of South Dakota. Given that upcoming milestone, Duba tries to remain mindful that she does have much more support now than she did at first. “I try to be optimistic and open-minded, regardless of judgments made about my age and experiences,” she relates. “To those who are trying to hold me back, I want to demonstrate that I am willing and able to make a positive difference, despite the year I was born.” Duba articulates beautifully an attitude that characterizes all restless young professionals who are on their way to the top: “If I waited for 100% support from every single person in order to challenge myself and grow professionally, I wouldn’t get anywhere.” The respect and trust issues encountered by some young professionals can be exacerbated by other signature characteristics of the generation gap. In this case, we’re talking about tattoos. Almost ubiquitous among the 30-and-under set, tattoos carry a more-negative reputation among Baby Boomers and even Gen Xers. Johnson sports a number of these, and she knows that doing so means that others may consider her “uneducated” or “unfit for this line of work.” Fashion choice is another area that divides the generations in every setting, both personal and professional. Johnson admits she tends to dress “differently,” based on her personal style, sporting bright colors and dresses rather than pantsuits or other conventional business wear. Sometimes, she’s mistaken for a cook, rather than as the department director. But this doesn’t really bother Johnson, because she finds her age and style allow her to more easily interact with students and not be viewed with the suspicion accorded most authority figures. “The reality is, I bring a bit of spice to school food,” Johnson proclaims, with pride. She’s not the only one who gets mistaken for being way younger than she really is—Duba has been told to “get back to class” when she was walking in the hallways of a high school. “I simply smiled and carried on with my workday, knowing that someday I would appreciate the compliment of looking young!” Duba exclaims. LOOKING FOR THE NEXT GENERATION There will come a time, probably sooner than anyone would like to consider, when today’s younger professionals will become the veterans, and the next generation will be on the rise. Will today’s group be ready to pay it forward, especially when it comes to patience and mentoring? “Providing that continuous cycle of mentorship and growth will help today’s young professionals mentor the next group of young professionals,” says Dove. Of course, mentoring and growing the next generation of leaders is not an age-exclusive endeavor. The long-term success of this profession will depend on having a complementary diversity in skill sets, approaches and opinions. As Duba says, “If everyone was the same, how boring would that be?” Recruiting should focus on finding those with the right attitude. Brandt, for example, recommends seeking new employees who demonstrate passion, work ethic and common sense. You can teach them everything else, she notes. There is something to be said, though, about the benefits of school nutrition departments hosting fresh-faced dietetic interns on a regular basis. It is one of the best ways to introduce qualified candidates to the benefits of the K-12 foodservice segment early in their careers. Brattain, like many others who have done so, finds that when she works with interns, they’re often enchanted with the profession and want to come back when it’s time to start a career. Indeed, this is how Duba and some of the others interviewed for this article discovered their love for school nutrition. It’s much harder to find well-qualified kitchen managers. Brattain says she focuses on recruiting young professionals who are burnt out in the restaurant or catering segments. Not only are they well-versed in foodservice operations, but they also have solid experience with personnel management and customer service—and most welcome the daytime hours that school positions provide. FIGHTING THE GOOD FIGHT Today’s class of upcoming school nutrition leaders aren’t unique in facing these challenges. After all, those who are now preparing to retire were once young and restless, too. Each passing generation should have the patience and respect to exert a positive influence on their younger counterparts, while each new generation should have the patience and respect to learn what they can from those who came before them. “Regardless of age, we all have a thing or two to learn,” Duba insists. “I hope I can pass along the good deeds I have received from others in this profession to the newcomers in my future.” SUCCEEDING AS A YOUNG LEADER It’s not easy being the manager or supervisor of people who are (gasp!) the age of your parents or even grandparents. How can you get them to take your ideas and knowledge seriously without becoming a bully, a micromanager or a disrespectful snot-nosed brat? Here are a few tips: » Establish your credibility. Don’t let an older employee peg you as “another lazy Millennial.” Always be willing to work as part of the team—remember, you’re not too good to scrub the line, even if you are the boss. Get things done; don’t just talk about them. Stay true to your word. » Respect tradition and workplace dynamics. Many younger employees despise the phrase, “That’s how we’ve always done it”—and with good reason. Your best ideas could flounder, however, because you didn’t take the time to learn why that’s the way they’ve always done it or if there were dynamics within the district that had hindered progress. The first step toward removing obstacles blocking your goal is simply knowing that they exist. » Keep learning. You might not be a top-notch supervisor in the first few months after you get the job. In fact, it might take you years to really understand the profession, the district and the team. Talk to your own mentor for guidance. (Don’t have one? Get one. Reach outside of your district through state and national SNA networks.) Check with the human resources and other district departments—as well as your state agency, of course—regarding clarifications on policies and procedures. Read articles about being a better manager, and seek feedback from your employees. They’ll like knowing that you value their opinion. » Focus on results. Not everyone is going to like your methods, and it’s important to hear what others think. Nevertheless, don’t let criticism get to you. Look at the results of your efforts, whether it’s bringing costs down, improving participation, increasing positive student feedback or managing the team’s time more efficiently—that’s what really matters. » Keep on being restless. Improvement comes from innovation and progress, so keep on pushing the status quo to advance the profession as a whole. YP@SNA In Spring 2017, SNA convened its first School Nutrition Young Professionals Task Force to gain perspective and energy on new ways for the Association to build engagement among this key demographic. Several initiatives are planned during SNA’s Annual National Conference in Atlanta. These include a Meet-Up Session on Sunday, July 9, at 2:15 pm; designated periods for Young Professionals in the Connectivity Lounge (Level 4); and a virtual Networking Group via the ANC on the Go app. SNA will continue to work with this group to explore other ideas beyond ANC. TASK FORCE MEMBERS Jessica Shelly, MBA, REHS, SNS, Cincinnati, Ohio, Chair Molly Brandt, SNS, Thornton, Colo. Erin Brattain, Noblesville, Ind. Stefanie Dove, RDN, Ashburn, Va. Laura Duba, Brookings, S.D. Mac McKay, Mishawaka, Ind. Kim Minestra, Evanston, Ill. Naomi Shadwell, Oceanside, Calif. Amanda Venezia, SNS, Londonderry, N.H. Kelsey Casselbury, 31, also a young professional, is a contributing editor for School Nutrition and a former managing editor of the magazine. She is based in Odenton, Md.
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