Changing The Image Of School Lunch

School Nutrition Education Program

Changing the Image of School Lunch

USDA Professional Standards Code- 3110/3130/4120/4130/4140

● West Christian – CEO of Food Handler Solutions & School Food Handler
● Bart Christian – Nationally Recognized Speaker
● Maria Eunice– Director of Food and Nutrition at Alachua County Public Schools

Tell us a little bit about the Fain Golden’s Food Service Director of the Year Award experience and that had to be something special for you.

It was a fantastic honor and I think one of the more special things is that some really wonderful people recommended me for that award. Beverly Girard, who I look up to, a director that I have known for many years and a mentor of mine. Joanne Kenzie and David Kaplan recommended me and that was a big one of the more special parts of the fame award and after receiving the award, to be recognized nationally and all of the recognition that came in following the announcement and the wonderful fame award ceremony was just very special. I do want to always try to make sure I mentioned my team because they are the ones that truly do the work, so I share that fame award with them. I was watching when you received your award and the video, they made you and the things your team said about you.

I know that you’re the director of food nutrition services at Alachua County public schools which is Gainesville, Florida and a really big district in terms of child nutrition.

I think we’re kind of considered a mid-sized district. I always say we’re a perfect size district because we’re not too big and not too small. We have enough in our district office about 15-16 people in our district office to be able to have enough resources to pull off what we do every day. Not so big that we can’t manage it. I think we have a really great size at 30,000.

What are your thoughts on those people who don’t really appreciate the value of being involved in the associations on a state and national level sometimes?

I think it’s very important to be involved in those state and national associations. I have always been involved and the more years that I have in food and nutrition, the more I feel like I should give back.

I have been the professional development chair for the state association. I feel like it’s really important that I work with the state team and try to come up with the very best sessions for the conferences.

I think that they become more valued for the state and the participation grows. I think that’s very important to do the best you can for making the sessions valuable to the staff, for the managers and for the supervisors and directors.

I noticed that you said this quote: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim is fulfilled.” It’s clear that you have a high value on your team.
I do.

I think it’s very important to empower your team and to listen to them. Truly listen and make sure that they feel heard to make sure that you are lifting them up and appreciating them.

I think we have a very strong team for that reason. I’m kind of a shy person. I have always been growing up and I like to get input from my team, and I think that I do my best to hire the very smartest people and they make us look great every day. I am just trying to be the person that’s coordinating and keeping it together. My team is all rock stars at the district office and out in the schools.

You’ve been married to the same man for 25 years. Your high school sweetheart, you have two
children, a dog named duke. You won the gold award for girl Scouts, which is the equivalent to an Eagle scout in boy Scouts.

● Yes. Yesterday was my husband and I’s 25th anniversary wedding anniversary. I’ve actually
known my husband since I was 10 years old. He was my brother’s best friend. I’ve known him for
many, many years. We’ve been married 25, but I’ve known him for many years. He’s wonderful.
My support. Scouts are a huge part of my life growing up. It really taught me some basic
wonderful life skills. I earned the gold award in scouting for girl Scouts and it’s equal to the Eagle scout in boy Scouts. I raised both of my boys to be in this Scouts and they are both Eagle Scouts so, I’m very proud of that.
● It’s a great organization. I’m tremendously supportive. I was actually the leader for Cub Scouts. Then my husband got involved as the awards chair for the boys Scouts. We were all involved as a family.

Is there anything else that you wanted to add now, Maria? I love hearing your story and hearing a little bit about your girl scout involvement and your marriage. Tell me just a little bit more about a major influence in your life, someone that has really impacted your career and your life.

I’d have to say Jane, when she was the director in Broward County that hired me and got me started in the child nutrition program. She was a tremendous influence for me. She was a great leader and Broward County is a very large district over 200 schools and she managed that district extremely well, taught me many things about staffing and being a great listener, being a great support as a leader and she was a tremendous mentor for me. When I got married and moved to Gainesville, she helped me and supported me. Many times, I’ve called her in the past and asked her questions, asked for support. She was always there for me. She is no longer with us, she’s passed away, but there’s an award in her name in Florida and I think it’s a great tribute to her. She was a special, special person in my life.

What was it that really grabbed a hold of you about child nutrition and really jug you in?
Actually, I kind of fell into it by accident. I was working in the hotel industry food service, and it was a lot of hours, a lot of weekends, a lot of nights. I just happened to hear about an interview in Broward County and I went for the interview. This is when Jane hired me and it changed my life. I started working as a supervisor in Broward County and she taught me so much and I worked there for four years under her, and she guided me and taught me some of the great foundations of what I still use today.

Have you had any specific challenges that maybe you’ve been able to successfully overcome either personally or through your team in the past 12 months that you’d like to highlight?
I think one of the larger challenges for us in Alachua County and I guess some of the other districts around the nation is we are given these waivers and the opportunity to feed the community.

● Sometimes the waivers come a little bit up against the deadlines so that’s been a challenge for
us that we can’t plan long-term. I think they’re doing a better job with that. We just got
information yesterday that we are able to feed through the school year next year, under the
summer feeding program. That’s going to be very helpful, but to be able to pivot and be flexible
has been definitely an attribute that has been necessary for me and the team here because
sometimes they come out with a waiver a little bit past when we need them to plan long-term.

● We started off the school year and we’re feeding under national school lunch and we had about a week and a half into the school year. We had to change gears and feed under the summer
feeding. It would have been great if we had waivers approved a little bit, just two weeks earlier would have been significant. I know they’re doing the best they can like we are but that’s been one of our greatest challenges, to be able to long-term plan with the information, the waivers that we’re getting.
● Also, the supply chain has been a little challenging. To get all of the products that we’re planning on our menus. The supply chain to get pre-packaged meals for the curbside service has also been a challenge.

Let’s talk a little bit about planning for this upcoming school year and some of maybe strategies or things that you’ve been taking into consideration that maybe you hadn’t taken into consideration in years past.

● That’s a good question. We are planning right now. Since we’ve gotten that information and
we’re trying to make decisions on how to approach this upcoming year differently, staffing has
been an issue keeping employee health, keeping employees at work and making sure that they
are healthy and being fully staffed is a challenge. I know districts all over the nation. In order to.

To plan going forward for the opening of school, we are going to be staffing working on filling the positions that are open right now. We’re going to be bringing in even more equipment and we will probably narrow the number of sites that we have at curbside because in Alachua County, the students are actually coming back more than some other districts. We are at about 75% brick and mortar. The district is doing a big push to have more students back in their seats coming in the fall. We will probably have less sites offering curbside service, but we will be offering that service so that the families that are digital learning and virtual learning will have the meals available to be picked up.

● To have the equipment, that’s also been a challenge for us, for the student, for each of the
kitchens they’re not really built for holding in the refrigerators and freezers the number of meals that we have been distributing because we do that twice a week. We have Tuesday, Thursday picks up for Curbside, digital academy students. It’s a lot of meals in a lot of cases. Some of our walk-ins are very small so we’ve had to bring in extra reach in coolers and reach in freezers to be able to hold that equipment.

Do you think, in essence, what we’re doing over the next year is we’re now providing universal meals on wheels?

● We are and that’s another huge advantage of this waiver that was just approved yesterday.
We’re able to feed the entire district for free and that’s so helpful to many families. We’ve gotten so much feedback that they’re so grateful that we’ve offered this service to them during this time with. Hit the ground running March, 2020. We haven’t stopped since we are at 6.4 million meals in Alachua County and we only did not feed for two weeks this entire year, seven days a week so we’re proud of that.
● The staff has been tremendous and making sure that we pull that off.
This is from a budgeting perspective. Do you think the increased reimbursement rates, which are having under the new waivers are going to help to make up a large part of the shortfall?
● I think the key is taking advantage of these programs and that’s what we’ve done in Alachua
County. In order to make sure that you are offering these programs for the families and making
sure you’re staying financially solvent, you have to take advantage of the programs.
● We now are offering breakfast, lunch, snack, and supper at curbside. We are also doing that at brick and mortar. We are having breakfast. We can have meals. We are doing weekend meals for the brick-and-mortar students. We actually have that going on where the students can take a weekend package of meals at the after-school program as they leave on Friday. We are at the
bus stops offering those meals for the weekend for the brick-and-mortar students, as well as,
parent pickup. We’re trying to take advantage of every program so that we can make sure that
families that need this food it’s available, but also to make sure that we are being good stewards and keeping the program financially solvent.

What are some strategies or tips that you could offer to people out there about really keeping your employee morale high and I guess really just empowering your employees in general.”

● I think what I do more than anything else and what I’ve learned over time is just to really listen to staff, listen to them, the management team and when you listen, you have to really make sure that they know they’re being heard. Don’t just listen, but go out and show them that you’re out there, show them that you are appreciative of them.
● I often when I’m making a decision, like we are for the summer, pick up the phone call, some of our managers and say, “Are these times I’m working for you?”, “Is your staff willing to work during these times?”. When we’re deciding on the curbside times and I get their input and the same thing with a district office team here we have weekly staff meetings. I’m always asking for their input. One person I don’t think can think of all the things that affect every decision and I think it’s really critical to make decisions as a team. I think that’s been effective for me and for our team.
● I think listening is key and going out and just showing your appreciation jumping in sometimes.
● Our district office team has to sometimes go out and fill in staff positions and every once in a while, I’ll go out and show them that I can do this as well, and make sure that they see me doing it.

Tell us a little about the little things that make so much difference.

Yeah. This was one of the coolest gifts I’ve ever received. I did some interviews with General Mills and I may put my name in my picture on the Wheaties box and of course I wanted to include my team on the back and the T-Mobile excellence, we put them on the back. This was a really special gift. It means a lot.

We’re going to do some things for our staff, the data, I think May 7th Day. We are planning right now to give a little gift. I don’t want to give it away but we’re going to give them a little gift to show our appreciation. We’re gonna all up at the district staff will go out and make sure that we are out telling them how much we appreciate them. I think that’s key.

● We’re also on social media asking the community to participate. It’s very special that the
community gets involved during the pandemic. At the very beginning, the kids would put signs
and job pictures and put them on the cars for our team. They were sending pictures in and those types of things are really special to our team as they’re on the curbside, given out meals. They really mean a lot and they’re making great relationships with the community, with the parents and that’s one of the really special things that have come out of this pandemic. If anything, positive things are coming out of it. The fact that we are really making these nice connections with parents, with the community, that’s truly been a bright star in our district. We’ll no doubt.

● We have always tried to work with our district about changing the image of school food service and I think this has really taken care of it for us. We are on social media and we often have parents and community members that if somebody gets on and posts something it’s not true or something not kind, we have people defending us for the first time ever and it’s so wonderful.
● We were in school; food service was in a time magazine. That was significant. It shows that this time has really allowed our program to shine throughout the nation.

What type of things do you think that we can do as an industry to continue this positive shift for the image of school lunch?

I think one of the things that the industry can do is to continue to show that we’re not what people used to be, what they remember us to be years ago. We have amazing programs in Alachua County.

● We have a farm to school program where we are serving our students organic lettuce. Produce
through our farm to school program where we’re working locally with our farms and bring it into our hub and deliver it to each and every one of our schools. We’re not what people remember.
● We have customization bars at our secondary schools and the students and the faculty at the
schools are that’s really changed our entire program by setting it up kind of like the restaurants where you like to politely or most to be able to offer, produce and protein and grains on the line and students can individualize their meal. That’s really been a game changer for us.
● The fact that we are not what people remember, if the industry can help us continue to get that word out and make sure people see that we are changing. We have a food truck also in Alachua County. We’re doing all kinds of different things that have never been done before.
● We still work on how to change this image and get the message out in a bigger, bigger way to the community. We’re doing social media; we do all kinds of different outreach. This pandemic has really helped us get that message out.

What’s your plan for the upcoming months to really continue that connection and spark additional participation as school’s over?

A lot of counties have a program called the “Your choice fresh”. Actually, students helped us name that.

The tagline is for students by students, they help us do taste testing. We make sure that we are involving the parents and through this pandemic, we have a thing called UYC or your choice at home, where we are sharing recipes with parents and families.

● We have actually a label that we have established where the QR code, and we put this on the
packages at the curbside and it lets them directly get to our menus to our recipes and the very fascinating thing about us sharing with them is that they’re also sharing back to us and we’ve had a number of parents and families share videos of coming up with different recipes with the products that we’re sending home. But also we are sharing videos and recipes with them so it’s a nice relationship and it’s something that we never had before but because we are able to do this curbside service and have this relationship with the families, it’s sparked this new, these new innovations that we’ve had where someone in our office actually did this really cute charcuterie board that you can see on our social media, where she took everything that we have in the curbside Neal and she put it on a board and made cute little, flower out of the different items and faces and out of the food and displayed in this really beautiful way. It gave the families a different kind of a different way to look at what’s in the bag and how they could use it.
● We’re just trying to be innovative and trying to show them that you can have fun with this food and with this program.
● I am kind of a risk taker. I kind of jump in, maybe not thinking through every single detail. I think that my team knows that that’s how I am and they definitely hang with me and support the decisions but we do talk through things, but I think being a risk taker and really taking advantage of all the programs and like I said, listening to your team and making sure they’re feeling empowered is really important and I would advise districts that are struggling to do some of those things and just make sure you are supportive of your team.

Do you have any suggestions on maybe a good first step that districts could take to maybe implement something like this in our district?

I think you have to build support with your administration at the school board and I do that regularly. I communicate with my boss regularly and make sure I have the support from the top.

I think that’s really key to keep them in the loop to communicate and to make sure that they’re there to allow you to do the programs that you want to do. I think that would be my biggest advice is to just make sure that you have that support. Jump in and try it to make sure you have a supportive team and that you listen to your team.

How has that training process changed in the past year and what do you anticipate your training program looking like and this next step in the coming school year?

● This has been a big shift for us and everyone around the nation.
● Doing virtual meetings
● We’ve implemented cameras and every one of our managers offices to make sure that we’re all
safe and not having a big group of people together.
● We do our management training.
● We have done our entire staff training. We have almost 300 staff. We did that when they were in groups at the schools.
● We are offering training virtually but also in real small groups.
● We have actual in-person learning.
● We have culinary training and we make sure that we have CPR available.
● We have a chef that offers knife skills and we just do those in small groups where we make sure that the staff are safe.
● We make sure that we clean surfaces and socially distance. Everybody’s very careful about
wearing their mask. I think just being cautious of the precautions and making sure that they
know that you are conscious of that you are making sure that they are staying safe, but also kind of being flexible with offering the virtual training if someone is unavailable. Sometimes we do both because there may be somebody that has a high-risk population at their homes so they feel more comfortable just doing the virtual meeting and then we do the other stuff there in person. We try to be flexible but we have continued to do training. We’re not doing exactly to the same level but, we are offering quite a bit of training through the pandemic.

Is there any advice that you would offer to child nutrition directors as we begin looking at summer? Is there any advice that you’d offer to anyone as they’re planning, getting ready for summer feeding or preparing for this upcoming school year?
● I think my main advice would be to take advantage of the programs that are being offered to us.
● The waivers to make sure you stay flexible and be prepared for what programs you’re offering.

Make sure your staff adequately and supply them with enough equipment to be able to hold and
execute what you’re asking them to do. When the pandemic started, we started purchasing
coolers for the buses and for the curbside service. We bought every cooler in the county so we
moved to those big bins that you can buy at the different stores and we put ice packs in the
plastic bins and used those on the buses and they ended up being better than the coolers.

● You just have to kind of be innovative and try to make do when you run up against something
like that, but just be prepared, think ahead and jump in would be my advice.
Is there one piece of advice or one tip or strategy or one thing that you wish you had known when you were first starting out as a director that you would say to an incoming brand-new director?
● I think my two main pieces of advice are to make sure you’re a good listener. Make sure that the staff know that you’re being heard, that they’re being heard.
● Be flexible and make sure that you’ll take advantage of programs, don’t hold back and make sure you are a little bit of a risk taker to be successful.
● Take advantage of every single thing out there. I think the government is being very generous in what they’re offering and it’s an opportunity to recoup and rebuild and I think we should take advantage of it. Some of us are reluctant to do that but this time is a little different.
● I think it’s served us well to take advantage of all the programs. We just support your team and then they’ll be right there with you giving them, given everything they can to make sure they feed the community.

As we wrap up today’s show, is there anything that either of you would like to leave our viewers today?

● First-off Maria, God bless you and your team, child nutrition, superheroes, and the job you’re doing in your community every single day. It’s being mirrored in communities across the nation. And my hope and my goal and I think my mission over the next year and a half is going to be to really fight. To be sure that people keep that visibility, that elevated visibility of childhood. I’m gonna encourage everybody to take advantage of every single program they possibly can because this is you talking about a pivot point in history. This is a pivot point in history for child nutrition, where we go from being in the back rooms to being in the boardroom. I think that’s where we have our opportunities here in child nutrition.
● I think with school food service, it’s really allowed us as a nation of school foods providers to really shine.

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