Director of School Foodservice Polk County School Board Bartow, FL
It's hard to imagine Marcia Smith being anything else but a school nutrition director, and she would probably agree. After all, this was the field she chose when she went to college, the one she made some early-career sacrifices to secure an entry-level position in.
She's now been at it for 34 years, the last 25 as director — all of it with Polk County, where she grew up.
But IFMA doesn't award Silver Plates simply for longevity. Rather, it is what Smith has accomplished in her quarter century tenure as director that earned her the 2009 award in the school foodservice category. Among her accomplishments:
• consistently maintaining her program on a sound fiscal footing;
• achieving an extraordinary 80 percent participation rate in her lunch program, one of the highest in the nation, including a remarkable 70 percent rate in the difficult high school portion;
• being at the forefront of the move to increase nutrition standards in schools — she was one of the first directors to remove deep fat fryers from her kitchens, doing that more than 20 years ago;
• continuing to grow her lunch, breakfast and a la carte sales (up 10, 19 and 25 percent, respectively, in the past few years alone);
• serving the school nutrition industry in a variety of leadership positions, including a term as SNA president at the time of 9/11, and continuing as a leading voice for child nutrition issues to this day;
• serving as a leading advocate for child nutrition internationally;
• championing professional development for her staff, and achieving one of the country's highest foodservice staff certification rates in the process.
Smith was born in Pennsylvania, but her family moved to Polk County when she was two. Originally intending to be a nurse, she ended up transferring to Florida State University to pursue a degree in food and nutrition instead. To further her credentials, she subsequently also earned a masters and a doctorate in business administration.
A Lifetime of Learning
Smith began her career in the trenches, though, initially taking a job as a foodservice manager in the Polk County system. She soon worked her way up to supervisor and a decade later was named director.
What's on Smith's Plate?
Annual Budget: $40 million
Annual Cash Sales: $13 million
Sites: 165 (113 with full kitchens)
Meals Served/Yr.: 10.7 million lunches, 3+ million breakfasts, 355,000 after-school snacks, 287,000 summer school meals
Smith says she is proud of being “in the black” every one of her 25 years heading Polk County's foodservice department, even in the face of escalating costs and diminishing reimbursement rates. She has done it by keeping her offerings fresh through tireless tinkering with the menu mix, ever on the lookout for items that she could put before her customers.
This has helped maintain her district's impressive participation rates, both in the reimbursable program and in a la carte sales. Her department currently has a $5 million fund balance and is totally self-supporting.
Amazingly, Smith has done all this while strictly adhering to the wellness policies she has long advocated, policies that banish many “kid-friendly” choices from consideration. Smith says she compensates for this by intently scouting food shows and manufacturer offerings for items that meet Polk County's wellness standards, and then rigorously putting these potential menu additions through a taste testing protocol to see how they might fare in the cafeterias. It is only if they pass this step that they actually get onto the menus.
Also helping boost the bottom line is Smith's Apple A Day Café, a catering/retail outlet in the district office that not only generates additional revenues by serving a more adult-oriented menu mix to district staff, but also helps showcase her department to administrators.
Originally I was going to be a nurse. My mother's a nurse and I started out taking nursing courses in college. Then I decided that just wasn't for me. I knew I wanted to do something with food, but also related to children. My mother kept saying, ‘Why don't you become a home economist’ and I said, ‘No, they don't work with children.’
Florida State also had a dietetic program but I chose not to go that route. I wanted my masters in business administration because I really am running a business and I have registered dietitians who work with me. It really is a CEO position and that's why I also have my doctorate in business administration.
When I graduated from college there was a manager's position available in one of the local schools and I decided to take it even though people said, ‘You know, you have a four-year degree and that's not that much money,’ but I thought, ‘Yeah, but it's great experience.’
I took the position as a foodservice manager in a local elementary school and it was the best thing for me because I was able to gain the respect of the foodservice employees. I was right there with them in the dishroom, preparing the food with them, doing everything with them.
We still prepare some items like spaghetti and shepherd's pie from scratch because we feel it's important for the students to come in and have a quality meal, and also to have that smell of cooking permeating from the kitchen.
The one thing I wanted to ensure with our wellness policy is that we would eliminate carbonated beverages. They were mainly in the high schools but they were available to students all day long. We didn't sell them, they were sold by the schools. They have now been replaced with juice and water machines.
When I first started we did have deep fat fryers, but after I became foodservice director we eliminated them. That was one thing I was determined that we were going to eliminate as quickly as we could. We use all baked potato products and we don't have any fried foods at all.
You won't see us cooking ground beef from scratch. We buy it all precooked just so we can ensure that we have safe product for our students.
We have ethnic choices available weekly now and that's a big change. When I first started, you wouldn't see tacos or anything like that very often.
To get high participation rates, it does help to have a high percentage of free/reduced. But I also think it's because of the excellent job that our foodservice managers do of promoting the menus. They're doing activities all the time with the students, taste testing with them, getting them to try new things. They are out there daily with those students, talking to them about their likes and dislikes.
My year as president of SNA was not what any of us expected it to be. It was ironic that my theme that year was to be “Caring for Communities We Serve.” And after 9/11 we thought, ‘Gosh, you know, that really is the perfect theme!’”
I would like to see two things happen. In the United States, I want every child to receive a meal at no charge. And I would also like to see the same thing globally: that every single day at least one meal be provided to all children everywhere. Is that practical in this economic environment? I'm going to say yes because even though the economy is in terrible shape, if we provided a meal to students every day, eventually it would help the economy, it would make a difference.
If you asked me 10 years ago what my biggest challenge was I would have said ‘finding people to work.’ Now I have too many people but I don't have the money to pay them decent salaries!
When we meet someone applying for a job, we do everything here rather than through a district HR department. Candidates come here to fill out the application, take orientation, take their physical, and do their fingerprinting and drug test. My assistant and I interview every applicant, and ask all the interview questions. Everything is done here so that they feel very comfortable with us, know where we're located and we are able to answer all their questions. Then, once they're hired, they come back here for all their training classes. I think that really makes a difference. Our people feel very comfortable when they come here that we're going to take care of them.
When I interview candidates, the first question I ask is, ‘Why do you want to work in school foodservice,’ and ‘Why do you want to pursue a career in child nutrition?’ If I hear, ‘Because I love children’ I know I have someone who will stay with me for a long time. On the other hand, if they say they need the benefits or they can't find a job elsewhere, I know in a couple years they won't be with me.