It's been quite a year for Sandra Ford. Last summer, she wrapped up her year-long term as national president of the School Nutrition Association, leading the organization in a particularly challenging year as its membership prepared for implementation of the first round of new federal school meal regs.
Then late last year she was named winner of the Golden School Foodservice Director of the Year Award, the highest honor in the prestigious FAME Awards competition for school nutrition professionals.
WHAT’S ON FORD’S PLATE
Annual Budget: $26 million
Sites: 52 + 6 contract sites
Meals/Day: 15,000 breakfasts, 28,700 lunches
Staff: 75 FT, 275 PT
Free/Reduced Pct.: 59%
And now she caps it all off with the 2014 IFMA Silver Plate Award in the K-12 Schools Category.
The accolades would be well deserved for Ford’s accomplishments with SNA alone, but she is also exemplary in her “day job.” She heads the nutrition department for Manatee County Schools, where in the past decade she has overseen a program that has built participation while increasing the nutrition profile of the menu and keeping her fiscals solidly in the black.
Manatee County, to the south of the Tampa-St. Petersburg metro region, is a challenging district all over the map demographically, with school site free/reduced percentages ranging from 18% to 99% and with a high degree of ethnic diversity.
So the school meal program has to be nimble, flexible and attuned to customer preferences. Ford prides herself on running a student-centered operation with lots of taste-testing and focus grouping to research different options for the menu.
That menu is extensive, with up to half a dozen entrée choices every day at the primary level and up to 10 a day in the high schools. That includes a fresh entrée of the day at all levels along with standard favorites like burgers and pizza. Salads are also available to all kids at all levels every day and Ford says they are quite popular.
As for keeping her financial house in order, Ford says the formula is simple: “My goal is to feed more kids with the same overhead. The more I feed, the more costs come down.”
So building participation is critical and in her 10 years at the helm of Manatee County’s school foodservice, Ford has boosted lunch counts by 14% overall and breakfast by 18% while growing the fund balance from $500,000 to $5.2 million.
Though a native of Pennsylvania, Ford attended Kansas State University and then taught in Kansas schools for five years before joining up with a local contract management company in the college segment. In 2004 she moved to Florida to take over direction of the Manatee County foodservice operation.
“The program was pretty broken,” she recalls. “There was no relationship with school leadership and staff, so in my first couple years I tried to rebuild trust.”
She got her first opportunity to do that when Florida’s required FCAT standardized test time rolled around.
“We started providing a free breakfast to all students during FCAT week in order to try to be a partner in the education process,” she says. “From there I’ve tried to listen to the principals, work with them through challenges and I really think that was one of the keys to turning this program around.”
The former teacher is also passionate about training. Each worker in the department is required to complete 12 hours of training each year, and staff development is provided.
“We try to build capacity so we have a management training program for potential new managers,” she explains. “This allows us to accommodate staff losses and plan for the future.”
Ford’s tenure as SNA president demonstrates her commitment to the larger school nutrition community. “I still remember the first SNA meeting I went to,” she says. “What I love about this community is that we’re colleagues, not competitors. We’re all just competing to feed more kids and are happy to share ideas. From every SNA meeting I’ve ever been to, I’ve been able to bring something back.”