Karla Pignotti and Jeff Torney (above), Kristen Pulfer (bottom)
The dietetic internship program at the Sarasota County (FL) Public Schools has given the system's Food & Nutrition Services department an impressive group of up-and-comers, who are now filling various roles in the department. Three young graduates of the program—Kristen Pulfer, RD, 25; Karla Pignotti, RD, 24; and Jeff Torney, RD, 24—are filling key roles under the direction of veteran Food & Nutrition Services Director Beverly Girard, someone all three cite as a valuable mentor. Pulfer began as a nutrition educator in 2004 and now works as an area supervisor overseeing a dozen schools and 90 employees. Torney, also an area supervisor, oversees 11 schools and over a hundred employees. Pignotti is a nutrition educator who teaches classes, primarily for K-3 students, and also does nutrition analysis of menus, deals with allergies and special diets and develops community programs focused on nutrition.
How did you come to choose this field?
Pulfer–I always had an interest in healthcare. Both of my parents work in the field, and I was an athlete, so I also had an interest in nutrition. When I was in college, my cousin was diagnosed with diabetes and I found it interesting how what she ate had such an impact on her disease. It was the first time I thought nutrition might be a career I would enjoy. Then a professor at Florida State gave me some books on the subject and it really triggered my interest.
Pignotti–I was really interested in nutrition in high school and that was what I wanted to study when I went to college. I wasn't sure what kind I wanted to study but I had a teacher at Florida State who really pushed child nutrition and foodservice management and sparked my interest.
Torney–I originally wanted to go to culinary school but wasn't sure I wanted to spend my career in the kitchen. I was working in restaurants while going to school when one of my employers mentioned dietetics as a possibility. I hadn't known about it before but I liked the science so I combined it with foodservice management. I went into a program at Central Michigan and looked for an internship with a foodservice management emphasis.
What advice can you offer others considering this career?
Torney–Develop your communication skills. It definitely makes my job much easier when I can communicate effectively.
Pignotti–Communication skills are crucial, but you should also develop your leadership and organizational skills because your days are never the same.
Pulfer–Get as much experience as you possibly can while in college. If you have an opportunity to work in a school foodservice environment, do it. And try to get an internship in a school environment.
What skills do you want to improve?
Pulfer–I would like to be a director someday, so I would like to know more about the inner workings of the department that I don't see on a daily basis. I'd especially like to know more about the financial aspects of running a department.
Torney–I want to continue developing my personnel management skills but also want to get more knowledgeable about the financial aspects of the department. I deal with the individual finances of schools but budgeting comes from the top down and I want to work on learning more about that.
Pignotti–I want to know more about purchasing and the bid process.
How has dietetics affected you personally?
Torney–Well, when you stand in line at McDonald's, you know exactly what you are doing—and do it anyway!
Pignotti–When you go out with friends, there's "The dietitian's here!" kind of effect. The upside is that you can explain nutritional principles to people and show why they're important.
Pulfer–Sometimes you don't want to admit you're a dietitian because then the rest of your evening is spent discussing nutrition ideas. But it is also an opportunity to convey some of the things I know.
What's the biggest challenge in the K-12 segment?
Torney–Food safety and child obesity. Pulfer–A lot of leaders will be retiring at around the same time soon, and as a profession we will have to make sure there are people ready to move up.
Does the media understand child nutrition?
Pignotti–They get the obesity angle, but that stigma of people thinking that the foods we serve in schools are not nutritious is still there. We've made lot of changes but the media often doesn't understand. They need someone to blame and schools are an easy target.
What did you want to do growing up?
What broad food trend interests you?