I started out teaching what was basically home economics in a junior high in Camp Lejeune for the Onslow County Schools while completing my Masters in vocational education at East Carolina University. At that point my goal was to become a college professor because I enjoyed adult education and working with adults and felt a little too restricted in a public school classroom.
I had finished my Masters and would have started my fifth year with Onslow County Schools when the position of director of foodservices at Camp Lejeune was advertised. Some folks who knew my area of interest encouraged me to apply even though at that point I didn't know anything about school nutrition as a career path. I knew it as a teacher, from the perspective that I would take my students down to the cafeteria for lunch.
Up to that point, the foodservice director position had always been held by a retired military cook, but the new superintendent wanted someone with an education background, someone who knew quantity food production to come in and make changes. He wanted nutrition education, he wanted a totally different slant to the program and he felt he had to hire someone with a background and interest in those areas.
I had a cubicle in the superintendent's office and no staff, not even clerical help, but the staff at the schools were wonderful! Here was this 20-something person who knew nothing about what they did, yet was supposed to be their boss, but they were so willing to help me. I was there four years, loved my job and immediately knew this is where I needed to be because it was the best of both worlds. I was in an education setting but I was working in quantity food production. My staff became my adult learners. I did a lot of training for professional growth and development for all my employees. That's always been a number one priority for me.
I worked as a sales rep for Bernard Foods in Massachusetts, but after a year that got old. Part of it was the traveling, but it was also the realization, ‘Oh my gosh, now I know what it feels like to sit on the other side of the desk!’ That experience has made me so much more sensitive to salespeople, to make sure I'm professional and treat them with respect.
When you're actively involved in your professional association you get a whole different world presented to you as well as a broader perspective on operations. In 1999 I was elected the Northeast regional director for the SNA board and served for two years. In the second year I was offered an opportunity to come to Pennsylvania and become director for the Allentown Schools even though I wasn't really looking for a move. But this is the value of getting involved in leadership, even just regionally. I found out about the job through the regional leadership networks.
Allentown had a much higher free/reduced rate than I'd ever dealt with before, but I was drawn to that because I was at a point in my career where I felt I could offer them more than I could have before. I was re-energized by the opportunities because there were more programs we were eligible to apply for — and we did.
I expanded breakfast to all the schools in Allentown. Frankly, with 72% free/reduced, we shouldn't even be asking if we should have breakfast in school. We should just be doing it.
I'm a real firm believer in accessing anything that's available in the form of a food program for children. Right now, breakfast, lunch, after school snack and summer foodservice are all viable programs and school divisions should be taking advantage of these opportunities.
I think USDA is really looking to schools for sponsorship of summer foodservice programs because we already have the expertise in food safety and quantity food production. But it's an opportunity that's been greatly underutilized because of the paperwork people think it involves and maybe because it requires some extra work in the summer.
I look at after school and summer programs as opportunities for our staff to get additional hours. Even the after school program will give people some extra hours beyond their workday. Not a lot, but it's something. Meanwhile, children get the nutrition they need to think better at 3:30 in the afternoon.
I've taken some Spanish classes, not just to communicate better with my employees, but also with student families. Because when you're responsible for approving the free and reduced applications, you get a lot more than just a piece of paper presented to you. You get family histories and circumstances that they're dealing with.
I think it's my responsibility to do some of these extra things because I sit in a position where I have that opportunity. I want people to see our department, through me, as that avenue that can make things happen. For example, I'm now on the Nutrition Advisory Board for the food bank here in Southeast Virginia, and we now have backpack programs in three of our schools. That's because I have a warehouse and a fleet of vehicles, so my trucks are going to be able to go to the food bank to pick up the meals that they're bagging for the backpacks and then take them to our schools.