School Nutrition Education Program
Developing the Leader Within
USDA Professional Standards Code- 3230/3450/4120/4130/4140
Bart Christian – Nationally recognized speaker in the school nutrition industry
Beth Wallace – Executive Director of Food & Nutrition of Jeffco Public Schools Denver, Colorado
Where do you see the industry going and what are you doing in your district that’s going to build that leadership within, and that power that everybody has within that sometimes people feel powerless but they’re not?
I think our industry as stated, I think that we still are in for some challenges going forward. We’ve got our food service team, returning everyone will probably be in person. When we start looking at the school year 2021-2022, there’s lots of pressure coming on us to increase our participation.
● We’ve got things facing us like nutritional guidelines that we’re all talking about right now.
● We’re expecting some key announcements for those coming forward.
● We were trying to keep the morale high, just as we talked about our superheroes today. I know this is all on everybody’s mind; how are we going to do this? How are we going to transition? and how are we going to feed our kids in the school year, 2021-2022?
● I think we’re just going to have to continue with patience, resourcefulness.
● I depend on my colleagues here in Colorado. We get together frequently, we have calls; what
are you doing? How’s it going in your district? Those types of things, I think we’re going to have to continue that, because I don’t think we’re ever going to be back to normal.
● Keep it simple, stay persistent and do not give up, buckle up.
What are you really passionate or obsessed with at the moment, or maybe it’s an item in your
personal life, or your work career that you really feel that you just excel at, and just are super passionate and enjoy doing?
I’m pretty passionate about school nutrition, it’s what I love. Are you asking me about my business world, or are you asking me about my personal world? So, there’s two different things, and my business world consumes a lot of my time and passion right now, I can talk about that a little bit. Right now, I’m pretty passionate about two big things that we’re looking at; our budgets, what are we going to do with our budgets?
● Not all, but a majority of our school districts have faced devastating times. My district is a little unique in that you usually don’t find a large school district. The size which are usually bigger city districts that are the lower free and reduced. So, Jeffco is only 30% free and reduced, and we depend heavily on our all-cart sales. So, that’s $5.5 million on a $26 million budget.
● While we talk about where we may get some relief here and this on reimbursement and that,
there was never any discussion on what we do with districts like ours, they depend heavily on
all-cart sales, what our students pay for our meals. So, I’m very focused on how we’re going to make this budget work moving forward and how we get ourselves out of what we’ve looked at
the past few years.
● Many districts have completely diminished all reserve funds and have nothing left to operate on. We’ve got to get back to being self-sustainable again. We’re very focused on every minor detail of our budget, and most people would know me pretty well. That’s always been something I have a passion about, is the budget and how we make it work and making sure we’re being good
partners with our district.
● Along with that, when you’re not your district is helping to pay for your child nutrition funds.
Along with that is coming the passion of our staffing. How are we going to address in Jeffco, over a hundred vacancies, we have over 400 plus employees, and we manage to work it through this last year with these vacancies and it did help in our budget situation, but now it’s time to buckle up and go, as I said, and now we’ve got a hundred employees to get hired and get ready for August. We’re not finding them coming out of the woodwork. So, we’re having to really think creatively out of the box on how we’re going to get this done.
How have the extension of waivers impacted your district over the past several months?
Well, the extensions of waivers have been extremely helpful, because there’s a higher reimbursement operating under the summer food service programs. So, we are hopeful that we get to continue with those waivers into the school year 2021-2022. We’re hoping that we hear some good news on that here in the future, but it has really been essential given that we are not getting any revenue from all-cart sales to the sustainability of our program.
What are some things that are maybe a little unique this year as you’re planning that you haven’t considered or taken into the equation in years past?
When you think about uniqueness, I guess one thing that everyone was in this transition to speed, scratch more speeds for scratch, cooking, that type of operation. As we came in fresh foods and what-not, and then we came into this pandemic, and everything had to be pre-packaged. Everything had to be shifted to sanitation, over sanitize, and be sure everything is safe. So, I would say that’s the uniqueness that goes into next year. I think we’re still going to continue to see sanitation. Still be a key issue with our customers. We have to be sure that our students are safe and that we’re following those practices. I think we’ll still be looking at pre-wrapped items and focusing on that aspect of our program.
What are your training programs and kind of continuing education for your employees that it’s going to be looking like in this upcoming year?
To be candid and honest with you, some of the things that we typically have in place are our professional development that we have each year for our staff and whatnot, that’s just kind of gone out the window because of the situation we were in.
● We definitely already had our SLPs in place for safety and sanitation, we would take copies of what we had in place and reiterate them, and we would send them out in paper format. We
have not been able to bring 400 people together like we normally do every year for hands-on and fun type of training that we typically do.
● So, we will try to re-engage, this year, in what we usually have in our, one day all employee training session, where we will refocus on that. Of course, we will still be virtually. Doing that, just getting 400 employees to understand how to virtually come together and have a meeting and talk, is worth an all-day training in itself. That’s some of the challenges of being a bigger district.
● We had to get the equipment out to them, we had to get cameras out there, we had to get
headphones, we had to get things like that, deployed. We had to teach staff how to log on, and
how to turn their speaker on, and how to turn their camera on, and make sure they were looking
at the camera. Those have been great learning curves for us this year. So now, we think we’ve got them, so we’re hoping we’ll get some more of those professional training that we value very much.
Tell us a little bit about a success over the course of this past year, just an area in which you and your team at Jeffco have really just excelled.
So, I’m going to go back to the success, just watching my team, and literally every single day it might be different methods of serving, and they were just so successful, how can I help?
How can we do this better and successfully? I mean, one day we might be serving outdoors, the next day we might be serving indoors, the next day we might be asked to serve out on a bus, the next day we might be told, I need three of you to go to a different location. They just moved without a blink, doing everything we asked. I will say the highlight, we actually served the number of meals that we normally serve on a given day when we weren’t in the middle of Covid. When we hit that number, we were all cheering over here, because participation had dropped so low, and when we saw it come back to that level that we know we should be at, there were cheers across the district. That was pretty awesome.
What did your serving process look like? Were you doing multiple days’ worth of meals, or how did that work?
So, we served outdoors. We served indoors. We serve grabbing go, and typically that was how all of our meals were. We served on a bus. Some days we serve one meal, some days three meals, some days seven meals, breakfast, and lunch.
One thing that I really want to call out about Jeffco, I am very proud of this, from the beginning we partnered with our nurses and our safety and security.
● So, everywhere we were serving, there was a nurse there to answer any parent’s questions.
There were safety and security team members there, to make sure our staff felt safe.
● We partnered with our foundation and sometimes we would give out gift cards, they would put
them in the bags. It was such a joy to sometimes get out of the silos, we followed them and
started working with other teams within the district. I can’t tell you that I work every single day with safety and security, that wouldn’t be a good thing, that would probably mean something bad was going on. We were having a lockdown or something.
● So, it was so great to work with those people and with the foundation, and to partner with other food advocate groups, we had meetings with them regularly. It felt like such a big family, just trying to do the right thing for our kids and our families.
What advice would you give to directors about how to maintain the prominence and the visibility that challenges have now been given?
● Absolutely. I have always been a big advocate of being at school board meetings. You need to
know what’s important going on in your district while it may not affect you, you still need to be aware of what’s being talked about within your district.
● As this went on, I had the chief curriculum officer, the chief financial officer, people talking to me left and right about how we solve this problem. That is the key to being successful in your district.
● One of the things that I am always an advocate of, being from a big school district, is we have supervisors, and those supervisors have twice yearly meetings with the principals.
● We have to connect with that side of the house, and they have to hear from us, and we have to listen and hear from them, what’s your challenges, what’s going on? How can we collaborate?
Principals now have my cell phone, and they just call me left and right, because I was having to serve meals from their campus. We were talking two or three times; they just have my cell
phone. So now, they just call me and it’s just incredible the relationships that have come out of this, and I certainly don’t want them to end, we need to continue on.
What do you think about managers participating in principal meetings, because there is a teacher meeting, not principal meetings, rather than when the principals have their weekly or biweekly staff meetings with their teachers and whatnot? What do you think about them participating in those meetings?
I think if we can make that work, that is absolutely essential to a good relationship in your particular campus. It is essential and good principals do that. So, the challenge becomes sometimes they’ll have those admin meetings say at 7:30 in the morning when the manager’s trying to get breakfast together, it’s always a timing issue, but when it works, it works beautifully.
How has your marketing changed and just some different strategies that you potentially utilized over the past several months to really get the word out about the creative ways that your team was serving meals? Are there any that are going to carry on into this upcoming school year?
When you’re in a large district, you usually have the benefits of big communication departments that can help you with a lot of your communication and your brainstorm.
What we did have one new unique way to communicate that I’ll mention at the end, but I think what we did was just start utilizing where we had all these tools, newsletters, monthly push-out to families, to the principals, e-mails that came daily from the district. We use Twitter and Facebook and all of these different ways to get the message out. We have new partners now, so we now have churches that are getting messages out. We now have some advocacy groups that are messaging out our message to our families. The one that I will tell you was very helpful; I think it also stepped up, telling the media world.
We had called probably a resource that’s at our disposal, but we were able to get that out there and it really made a difference in some of our communication and getting our messaging out.
Do you anticipate any changes in the way that those particular in-person style meetings will be held?
We talk about this as you can imagine a lot, and our SNA meetings and calls and whatnot. I do think you’re gonna see a change, but I do not think in-person meetings will ever go away. People love to connect that they thrive on that connection with other people, and we miss that desperately. I do think there are some minor meetings that used to occur that now can be handled virtual away, but I don’t think you’re going to see any of our major meetings or conferences ever go virtual. Everyone’s clamoring at the get-to-get back to in-person meetings.
Who is someone in the school nutrition association, or just in your life in general, who has really impacted your career path?
Yeah. I can call out a few names. Lena Wilson, Rochelle Sharon, Melanie Kahn, Arik, Frank Omni, April Compost, was my first real boss in child nutrition, and I still talk to him today. Of course, my mother and my brothers and my husbands are all supporters and leaders and my sounding board, those people have had very strong influences when I go back to my colleagues within this, Lena, Rochelle, Melanie, and Frank, whenever I run into a problem, they are the first people I call. They’re the ones that I’m like, okay, how do we solve this one? We’ll just start laughing, have you had this one? No, that’s a new one. Okay.
How are we going to solve that? You have to have those people in your life. Otherwise, I don’t know how you get through successfully without hearing about your successes and your failures, because the failures are just as key as any success.
Learn really along the way, that is how you handle those failures that speaks volumes about moving forward. You need to learn to handle your failures well, that made me go off and cry in the corner and get it all out. You have to handle it well and move forward. Pick yourself up, get going again.
What is the piece of advice that you might give to a child nutrition director out there?
Wow. Piece of advice, I don’t know. I hate to say that I know it all because I don’t. A piece of advice I would say is being a lifelong learner.
● Be open to change, be an active listener, listen to what the person you’re talking to is really trying to say, sometimes some people speak articulate things very clearly, and others, you have to listen so carefully to really understand what they’re trying to say. I wish I had gotten into this profession. When I started my early career, I wandered through a few places and I wanted to be Betty Crocker. When I say that my favorite classes were making jelly at Texas A and M or making wine, the wine class, or when we had a dairy, and we had to work in the dairy and the bakery, I loved all that. I wanted to be Betty Crocker. It took me a while to get to the school nutrition.
Wow, I wish I had gotten here earlier, because it’s a great profession.
● There are many challenges, there are days I have cried endlessly, but there are also so many
rewarding opportunities here, and just be a lifelong learner; continue to seek those
opportunities that are out there for you.
What advice would you give to a brand-new director of somebody? What would you tell them?
● The first thing you need to do is get involved with your state association and the national
association, that is going to be your life support, that’s where you’re going to find your best training, that is where you’re going to learn to be successful, for sure. You’re going to meet your colleagues, you’re gonna meet other support members there. I would also recommend, and it’s what I do with everyone that comes and works new. We have new supervisors.
● Read those regulations and understand those regulations, they’re boring, they’re dry, but when you have that knowledge behind you, you are much better prepared to be that lifelong learner to keep asking those questions, why are we doing this? Why is this occurring? To continue that learning path. Get to know your team, go in those kitchens, work with them, be side by side, with them as their challenge.
One of the things, if you never know very much about me, I love making an employee’s workspace the absolutely best workspace it can be. I love kitchen design and remodel, I love working in there, because what I feel like where I might not be able to pay them a million dollars to be in that kitchen, if I can give them a great work environment to be in, then I’ve done what I can to help support them out in those schools. That’s why I believe in being out there and talking with those employees and listening to what they have to say.
Did you also find that new directors tend to think that you go back to that silo concept? Do you think that’s important?
Absolutely. That’s why I go back to your brand-new state, say, no one gets involved with those
associations. That’s why I said that. Those are going to be your colleagues that you aren’t dependent on and go-to, if you know any of those people, those girls were with me from the beginning in Texas and I depended on them, and just still to this day depend on them, so that is the key to reaching out to others.