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Partners for Progress

The November issue of School Nutrition included excerpts from School Nutrition’s 9th annual Roundtable of Leaders featuring pairs of directors and managers from seven school districts across the country. Space restrictions prohibited the magazine from publishing a number of fascinating insights, reflections and exchanges in its print edition, but these have been made available here. Learn about the backgrounds of each participant, how they got hooked by school nutrition, additional thoughts on the best recipe for working together and their next professional goals and aspirations in this exclusive online content.

School Nutrition: Let’s get started by having each of the directors introduce yourself, your district and your partner.

Patricia Gould: I’m Pat Gould. I’m foodservice director in Burlington Township, N.J.; I oversee multiple school districts. I’m with manager Marlene LeRoy, who works at the biggest high school we manage. We have one high school, one middle school and two elementary schools in [Burlington]. I’m on my 19th year [in school nutrition], and Marlene has worked for me for 15 years. I’m the outgoing state president for [NJSNA] and Marlene has worked her way up from being an hourly worker, and now she is the incoming state association president. I’m so proud of her!

Mona Martinez-Brosh: I’m Mona Martinez-Brosh. I’m director of nutrition services for Aurora (Colo.) Public Schools. With me is Shannon Solomon, who was a manager up until about a year ago when I promoted her to a coordinator position, because she is so wonderful that I wanted her to share all of her wonderful skills with other managers. We have about 36,000 students and are about 68% free/reduced. We have 54 schools and 14 breakfast-in-the-classroom schools, along with nine Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program schools and 11 schools with afterschool snacks. I should also add that Shannon competed on The Food Network’s “Chopped.” [Editors’ Note: For more information about Solomon’s “Chopped” appearance, see “First-Class Passion,” page 38, in the November 2013 issue.]

Sandy Voss: My name is Sandy Voss. I’m from Marquardt School District 15 in the western suburbs outside of Chicago. We’re a fairly small district, but I have other school districts that I provide food for. We have about 15 schools and 9,000 students total. With me is Margo Gusman. She is our manager at our central kitchen, and it’s also an onsite middle school, so she oversees about 4,000 meals. She has been there longer than I have. This is my sixth year, and Margo’s 11th year. Margo has worked her way up from hourly to being a manager. She has excelled in many ways, and I’m proud to have her with me and share her ideas, as well.

Ken Crawford: I’m Ken Crawford. I’m with Ogden City School District in Ogden, Utah. With me is Bonnie Munson. She is manager of James Madison Elementary and is SNA chapter president. This is my second year in child nutrition, and Bonnie has been in it long enough that she could have served me when I was in kindergarten. So, I am able to draw from her experience, and she is a great asset to our district. Hers is the only school where we’ve been able to get up and running with breakfast in the classroom, so I always know that she’s willing to put in the extra effort for anything that will benefit our kids. That’s really helped us to get things started in our district and hopefully expand. We’ll have our second school start this year.

I’m not just doing school nutrition. I’m director of athletics and support services. It includes pretty much everything that doesn’t involve teaching kids in our district. So, it keeps me very busy. But fortunately, I have a great staff that keeps me straight and in line.

Gitta Grether-Sweeney: I’m Gitta Grether-Sweeney, and I’m the director for Portland (Ore.) Public Schools. To my left is Leslie Phillips, lead. She is a dynamite lead. We have five programs. She serves all those programs—breakfast, lunch, FFVP, supper and free Head Start. We are a fairly large school district. We have 47,000 students and 46% are free/reduced. We don’t have a la carte, but we do operate in the black. I’ve been at the district 10 years and have been director for three years. I came as an assistant director. Before that, I was in Texas for 16 years working for smaller school districts. Leslie has been with the district for 11 years.

Kevin Ponce: I’m Kevin Ponce from Mid-Del Schools in Oklahoma. This is Manager Wendy Hall. She’s been with us for 13 years, 11 of those as a manager at one school. She’s been promoted to manager at a middle school. We have about 14,500 kids and 25 schools (17 elementary, five middle schools, three high schools). High schools are open campus. That’s a challenge. We’re 69% free/reduced. We have challenges on both ends. I’m glad to be here.

Shane Tarkington: I’m Shane Tarkington, assistant director in Clarksville-Montgomery, Tenn. We have 37 schools, with 19 participating in the universal breakfast-in-the-classroom program. We’re the first district in Tennessee to have a bakery. We do farm-to-school. This is Jo Emmett. She’s a manager at one of our elementary schools. She operates breakfast in the classroom at that school. That’s actually our highest free/reduced school, with a little over 80%.

School Nutrition: What is it about school nutrition that has hooked you all? It’s not the money; it’s not the glory. It’s the kids to a certain extent, but certainly there are other ways you could work with kids, so what is it about school nutrition that attracts you?

Shannon Solomon: I think what first got me engaged was my five children and then being involved in their schools. I knew the elementary school kitchen manager; my kids all grew up with her, even my 21-year-old twins. She’s still there. I spoke with her when I was changing careers six years ago. She talked about how wonderful it was. The schedule is definitely appealing, and the children, of course. What keeps me, honestly, is everyone in this room and the hearts of the colleagues you get to work with. They’re amazing people.

Bonnie Munson: One thing that drew me of course was the schedule with my children. But I have always enjoyed having a position that allows me to use my creativity, because there are so many times that you are told what to do with every single step that you do. In child nutrition, creativity is encouraged, and it’s been a fun outlet for me not only to make a difference and have fun with [the kids], but to use my creativity.

Grether-Sweeney: I’m an RD, and my background is nutrition. I never thought I would work in a school district. When I was going through my internship, a colleague of mine was working for San Antonio Independent School District and said I should work in schools, and I said, “What, are you kidding? I’m not going to work in a school district.” So, I started in nursing homes. I knew I didn’t like clinical dietetics and working in hospitals. I don’t want to sound bad, but I didn’t like working with sick people. I didn’t feel successful doing that. I saw an ad in the paper 25 years ago for a position for a foodservice director for a school district. I didn’t think I was qualified, but I applied and got the job and 25 years later, I’m still [in school nutrition]. What I find gratifying and why I’m still here is that I want to help kids from the beginning and teach them early about eating habits that are healthy so that they don’t get to the point where they have to see a clinical dietitian. I feel like I can impact so many more lives through school lunch than I ever could working in a hospital. I love the challenge. Every day is a new day.

Leslie Phillips: For me, it really is the kids, when they say, “Miss Leslie, what are you making?” Ten years ago, when I came in, we were using white bread and [serving] French fries. Today, we’re doing garbanzo bean salads, roasted red potatoes…so the transition has kept me.

Marlene LeRoy: This wasn’t what my goal was [originally]. I came from the post office after many, many years. I came to Pat asking for sanity. She didn’t promise me sanity, but what’s kept me here is knowing that I make a difference in someone’s life every single day. I go home knowing that I made someone’s day that day.

Tarkington: I came from a healthier side, like Gitta, with hospitals. I wanted to come over to the school side to impact the children at a young age.

Margo Gusman: I never intended to get into this business. I was a business major a long time ago, and … when I had my daughter, I decided to stay at home and started being an entrepreneur. [Now,] I really started getting excited when we opened up our [central production] kitchen and started doing hot meals. I never knew about how involved the government was in things and where we got fresh and vegetables from—why the [Department of Defense]? Every day is something new and different, and you get to go home every day knowing you did something good. You accomplished something. You had a good day because you fed kids.

Crawford: I was a teacher. I came into this industry a little bit differently. I taught geography and social studies for six years and then became an administrator. Before this, I was athletic director for the district. So, when I was hired for this position, I had to figure it out. If I want to be good at this position, I have to be passionate at it. Okay, I do like to eat food, but that’s different! I think for me, the epiphany that made me realize how important [child nutrition] is was looking at it from a different standpoint. When I was in the classroom, I never thought about a kid needing breakfast and lunch to be successful, but when I took over this position, I realized that there are a ton of kids who don’t have Mom and Dad at home to prepare breakfast for them in the morning.

Our school district is quite a bit different than the rest of the state of Utah. We’re about 48% Hispanic and 75% free/reduced. We have about 12,500 students, so that’s close to 9,000 kids who qualify. For many of them, their parents are off to work at their first job before the kids leave in the morning, so they have to get up and prepare it for themselves, so they may not have that meal in the morning. It made me realize how important it was to the educational process to make sure that kids not only got fed but got a nutritious meal that allows them to be successful in the classroom. It really became part of our philosophy to educate the whole child, both mentally and physically.

Ponce: What got me hooked is listening to everyone’s story [even now]. We share the same things, and it doesn’t matter what part of the country you’re from or the size of your district, to just be with the kids. They say, “Hello, Ms. Cafeteria Lady, what are you cooking for me?” All these things that we share, that’s what got me hooked. All of these challenges—that’s what keeps us going; that’s what keeps the blood pumping.

Jo Emmett: I love the kids. I love the challenges every day. We started breakfast in the classroom last year, and my school’s not in a real good neighborhood. I wanted to see [breakfast] work so badly, because probably about 80% of our kids raise themselves. We see them come in every day, and they’re dirty. I love the kids, and I wouldn’t change that for anything.

Martinez-Brosh: I grew up in a very, very poor family, so I was one of those kids raised on free meals, which I was thankful for every day. [In college,] I needed to find an internship that would pay me; that was at Cherry Creek School District’s foodservice department, and as I went through my rotation, I realized, I don’t like clinical [nutrition]. I don’t like WIC [either], they’re only seeing me, because they have to. And then in the school, [what we do] makes a difference. If you’re having a bad day, just go look at a little kindergartner coming through [the cafeteria line]. And [our efforts are] preventative—preventing obesity from occurring in the first place. I liked the different aspects [of this segment]. I wasn’t just working on a diet; I was working with people and personalities and being creative and doing all kinds of things. I discovered very early on, right out of college—and I’m still doing it 27 years later—that school nutrition is my passion. This is what I’ll always do. I’ll still do something in this field even when I retire. I’m not saying I love my job every day, but I love what I do—and how many people get a job where they love what they do? I get to work with wonderful people like Shannon. When you have [staff members] like Shannon, it’s amazing—it makes your job much more enjoyable.

Wendy Hall: I started when my youngest started school. I’m still there, and he graduated five years ago. I love the challenges. There’s never a dull moment.

Voss: My RD experience is similar to that [of Gitta and Mona]. I really didn’t know what area I wanted to get into. In working in a hospital and putting in a [feeding] tube with a surgeon, I passed out—so I learned hospitals and I don’t get along. I thought, I have to go another route. So I ended up interning in a school in central Illinois, and I was lucky to have a wonderful mentor, Connie Mueller, who kind of took me under her wing and passed along my name. So, I ended up getting a job and I love it.

I’m in my second district. I really love change. My staff thinks I’m crazy. I love constantly reaching goals, constantly trying to do better. The district I’m in now has a higher free/reduced percentage than my past school district; the kids need us. You feel a sense of accomplishment every single day. That’s something where I wake up every day and say, “You’re a good person for what you’re doing. You’re helping kids.” It really just makes you feel good at the end of the day. I’m almost 31, and I know I’m going to be in this for the rest of my life.

Gould: I think almost everything everyone has said sort of covers how I feel. I’ve been in foodservice for 28 1/2 years. At one point when my kids were ready to go off to college, I thought I’d go back to nursing. But no, I love the kids. I’ll take it one step further than what Kevin said…it’s the people, too. We are one big family, and it’s across the country. There’s nothing more energizing than knowing I’m going to ANC, and it’s like [I’m seeing] my long-lost friends and sisters that I don’t get to see. We all have the same problems, we all have the same challenges and we all have the same goals. We’re a unique group of people that probably don’t get paid the biggest amount of money for the jobs that we do, so you have to know that all the people here [in this room] and at ANC are here because we love our kids. We love what we do. I love the fact that every day is different. You’re not serving a hot dog every single day. You’re serving a variety, so every day is truly different.

It is about the kids, but it’s about the people. There’s something very gratifying when someone comes to you who’s had a rough time, who wants a job change or a career change and you see them grow and blossom. … It’s kind of like pay it forward and you want to see the next generation and the younger group coming up. It’s all of it.

Editors’ Note: An excerpt of responses regarding the key elements for a healthy working relationship were included in the print edition. Additional responses follow.

LeRoy: I have the utmost trust and respect for Pat. We’re very much alike, so that trust is there. We think a lot alike. I know what she’s going to say, and I think she pretty much knows what I’m going to say and do.

Hall: Listening.

Ponce: Wendy’s right. We have roundtable discussions with our managers. It’s not [directed by] me; it’s whoever shows up and we talk about stuff like this. It’s about listening; it’s not about the problem solving. I’m listening to their issues, and a big ingredient is that communication like you talked about. This is my third school district. When I first arrived six years ago, it was interesting because I would visit the sites, and they would say, “He’s coming, he’s coming!” But after a while, it’s like, “What do you want? What are you doing here?” I’m just visiting, seeing if they need help with anything. You have to make the most of [those visits]. When they say, “Long time no see,” you have to take it in a joking way, but it’s true…you haven’t been around in a while.

Hall: He does say, “My door is always open.”

Solomon: I have full trust that with any kind of feedback, Mona has the best intentions [for me]. She has the students’ best intentions in the forefront. In this job, I’m just me, no persona, I don’t have to worry about that. I can just be me, and it’s safe.

Martinez-Brosh: Trust and communication: Those are the two key ingredients. Communication is listening. It’s talking. So when Shannon comes to me and says, “Mona, that may have hurt my feelings,” I say, “OK, let’s talk about it. Let me tell you why I did what I did.” We discuss it.

I also have an open door policy—to a degree. Because I keep going to larger and larger districts, if I have an open door policy, I’m never doing anything except listening, and that’s why I’m there until 7 or 8 o’clock at night. So, my open door policy is there to a degree--yes, you can come and see me, but let’s make an appointment.

Emmett: Trust and communication. I know that with Shane and Debbie, if we’ve got a question, we can just pick up the phone. If we have a question and need an answer, they’re going to get it answered for us.

Grether-Sweeney: You have to be a people person and be willing to build relationships. One of the things that I really miss since being in a large district is getting to know the staff better. There’s a layer of management between us. But one of my favorite things is a [staff] contest, and I take the winners to lunch. Usually it ends up being a two- to three-hour lunch and it’s one of my favorite times, because I really get to know and visit with the people.

I use Leslie’s school a lot as a training school, but I know she’s busy, so I’m not just going to sit there and visit with her when I know she’s got lunches to move out. So, it’s important to build that relationship [and] empower the staff, so that they can make decisions on their own and don’t need to call on me.

School Nutrition: What is your next professional goal or aspiration?

Voss: As president of our state association, I feel that everyone had a tough year. I think in the next few years, I’d really like to provide more education. Illinois is a small state with 1,400 SFAs, and a lot of people don’t have the opportunity for training and they [already] wear different hats. Somehow, we need to reach everyone and build the best programs they can have. We’re hopefully partnering with the state Board of Education on that.

My goal in my district—I don’t see myself leaving any time soon—is always to continue to grow my staff and give them pride in what they do. I don’t really want to get bigger; there’s not really more I can do in that area, so providing good programs for the kids and growing my staff are my goals.

Solomon: I just started our Aurora SNA chapter. I’d like to get into leadership in the Colorado School Nutrition Association, and I made those contacts at the last ANC [in Denver]. And before she retires, I want to learn everything from Mona, who’s a very experienced director who’s worked in small districts to bigger districts to where she is now. I would love to run a district. I just graduated with my bachelor’s and am going back to school in December to possibly get my master’s, but we’ll see where opportunities open up.

Martinez-Brosh: I’m going to retire in three and a half years. So, finding talent. We’ve been talking in our state about who’s going to be leaving; there are several of us who are the same age, so we have to go out and find talent. Who can we groom? But we don’t want to groom so well that they all of a sudden leave and we don’t have someone to take our spot! I know Gitta because one of my employees went to go and work for her when I was in a previous district. It’s a small world!

So, my goal is just to keep finding individuals who we can grow and develop, whether it’s a manager stepping up who says “What do I have to have to have a job like you?” Well, you are going to have to have a degree. It may not necessarily be in nutrition, but you are going to have a degree, and here are some other classes you’re going to want to take, and you need to have a strong financial background because you are working with millions and millions of dollars. I think developing personnel to be future leaders is probably my biggest goal.

Gusman: I’m looking forward to doing more marketing and taste-testing. I’d like to learn how to do taste-testing, because I’ve never really done it on my own. On a personal level, I would like to move up in my certification level, because if I get more information in more areas, it will only help me to pass it down to my staff and make us a more rounded operation. Currently, I’m at Level 1.

Tarkington: Personally, I’d like to get more involved with the state association, so I’m looking into those opportunities.

Emmett: I’d like to move up from Level 1 to Level 2 [with my certification]. I like being a manager, so I want to stay where I am. I just hope I have a full staff when I go back. We had talked about doing farm to school, but we didn’t get the grant last year, so we’ll try again this year. Hopefully we’ll get that.

Gould: I’ll just be coming off the state association presidency, so I’ll stay involved and encourage other people to take that route, to develop themselves, to feel good and keep everything going.

Also, I’ve been talking to a lot of vendors and I really want to do a parent food show in the district, bring the parents in and have a little education session for them, because the parents are at home listening to the kids who say they’re throwing the food out and that “Ew, lunch stinks.” So, I just figured, you know what, let’s get them in here. And maybe they’ll encourage their kids to come into school and eat, because they’ll know what we’re serving. That’s my big thing that I really want to pull off. How cool would it be to bring the parents to something on a miniature scale and let them see and let them be involved?

LeRoy: Mine is to have a successful year with my state presidency. I have some big little shoes to fill here, because Pat is the outgoing state president. And Pat has other initials behind her name; she’s our CFF: Chief Fun Fairy. It’s going to be hard to follow in her shoes. But she’ll be next to me the whole way, so I’m good.

Ponce: For me, it’s a couple of things. Getting back to what Pat said, trying to get parents to reality, so a taste of Mid-Del Schools is something we’ve thought about—working with the PTA president and PTA council and vendors about what can we promote. I’m getting close to retirement, too, because when you can count it on one hand, it’s close enough! So, another goal is not only to provide resources but to be a resource. … I think it’s a good thing [to be involved in SNA]; we gain all this knowledge that we share…—I’m not going anywhere after retirement.

Hall: I want to build our participation in breakfast. I’m thinking about how to present it to make it look better.

Phillips: I’m happy being a lead. But I want to get more involved in our school garden. They surprised me with it one day, [and it turned out that] the kids ate all the food that they were served from the garden. So, I’d like to maybe get more of the food from the garden into my kitchen.

Grether-Sweeney: At work, I would like to start an employee recognition program. We don’t have anything like that, and as large as we are, one of the problems we [can fix] is being able to recognize good work. So, I want to start that. Personally, I want to be more involved with SNA and participate in more presentations or in whatever capacity that I can. Now that I’ve put three years behind me as director and have a pretty good, competent staff, I figure I can do a little bit more.

Crawford: With our volunteer tutoring program, I’d like to see the number of our cooks participating double. We had about 10% of our cooks volunteer over 400 hours of classroom time to the kids in our district…[showing] that all of the people within our district care, it’s not just our teachers or administrators. I would love to see more of our cooks get involved, because we saw such great results this year.

Honestly, I’m concerned with all these [regulatory] changes, how that’s going to affect our bottom line. We lost close to a quarter-of-a-million dollars this year, with the increase in labor costs and food costs, etc. I’m competitive and I take it personal. I don’t like to lose. I want to make sure that when I’m gone, the program is better off than when I got it. So, the goal for me is to figure out what I can do so that we can continue to have a successful program that’s able to stay in the black and provide good meals and provide new updated equipment for our ladies and make sure we’re not working them to death, because we’re not able to provide enough labor to get everything done. Hopefully, those are the things we’ll be able to accomplish in the next few years.

Munson: I am at a point in my career where I’m 30 years in. I’ve done so many different things, but I’m not done. This is my 16th conference and every year I go, I want there to be a different experience. I’ve done a lot of different things at the national conference and on the state and local levels, but I know I haven’t done everything yet, so I’m not done. I still want to be involved.

I want to share my fire with others and get them excited. I am proud to share that nearly every worker that I’ve ever had has come to the national conference—I don’t know if I’m that obnoxious about it or if I just make it that exciting, because they all want to be here. Some haven’t come because of financial issues, but most of them have come. Almost every worker I’ve ever had has gotten certified, and almost every one of them has been to a national conference. And those who haven’t, we’re working on it.

I’ve been on the ballot before for employee/manager representative, and I didn’t make it, but it’s something I’d like to try again, to run for one of the elected positions. But I’ve been on different boards and I’ve done a lot, and I know there’s still more. I don’t know where I want to go next, but I just know I’m not done.