The Importance of Courage in the Business of Child Nutrition

Courage may not be the word that immediately comes to mind when you think of child nutrition. However, in the last couple of years, that is exactly what K-12 nutrition professionals have had to embody to overcome the unprecedented challenges they and their teams have faced. 

In the final installment of “The 4 C’s Behind the Business of Child Nutrition,” a four-part video series hosted by NextUp and moderated by Shannon Solomon – a renowned, passionate leader in the restaurant and K-12 industries – school nutrition professionals discuss the role courage plays every day in their departments. 

School Nutrition Leaders Using Courage to Overcome Challenges

The last two years have been difficult for every industry and, as leaders, it is tempting to want to “push through” and encourage your team. However, this can sometimes be dismissive of the challenges at hand. As Stephanie Giannini, Director of Food and Nutrition Services for Marquardt School District in Illinois, states, “You don’t always have to be positive. You can level with your team, be vulnerable and admit that this is hard, but we’re going to get through it together.” The panel of K-12 nutrition leaders provide insightful examples of how they courageously took on the difficulties that they and their teams faced. 

Having the Courage to Fail 

Trying something new is intimidating under any circumstance, and even more so during a global crisis. Being courageous enough to take on a challenge in a new way, even if you aren’t sure of success, empowers your team to know that they are in a safe place to take risks. Demonstrate that it is necessary to get out of your comfort zone in order to grow by being brave enough to fail. Jessica Shelley, Director of Student Dining Services for Cincinnati Public Schools, says “Sometimes [failing] is how we learn the best. Being able to say ‘I’m wrong,’ and doing it in front of our teams.” 

Having the Courage to Innovate 

The challenges that school nutrition leaders faced required them to change their entire business strategies. They were adapting, as the saying goes, “on the fly”. Keeping the mission to feed hungry kids in mind, school nutrition leaders find innovative ways to ensure students receive the meals they need. Roy Pistone, Director of Food and Nutrition Services at Citrus County School District in Florida, shares that his district is building a warehouse to try to “combat where supply chain challenges could cause a hiccup.” Remembering how difficult the past two years have been, he notes, “I never want to be in a position where we do not have food to feed kids.” 

Also tapping into the courage to innovate, Vanessa Hayes, Director of School Nutrition at Tift County Schools in Georgia, recalls her creativity in staffing her nutrition department. “After the pandemic, a lot of staff was just tired and didn’t want to work summer school. I turned to the high school and started employing students”. This is a strategy that many other districts are emulating to combat the staffing shortages in school cafeterias. Without the courage to try new things, these leaders may not have discovered ideas that not only helped them overcome the challenges they were facing but will help alleviate some of their lingering effects. 

Grow by letting go.

-Jessica Shelley, Director of Student Dining Services, Cincinnati Public Schools

Having the Courage to Delegate 

As a leader, it is difficult to release control over tasks and delegate to your team. However, it is the most effective way to help your organization grow. Oftentimes, your team has the best ideas. They can give their personal perspective and they see things from a different viewpoint than you. As Shelley puts it, “Have faith in your team and know they’ve got this. Grow by letting go”. It takes courage to trust that your team will be able to handle whatever tasks you give them and whatever challenges may arise, but in doing so, you empower them to learn and use new skills that benefit your entire program in the long run. 

Get Insight From The School Nutrition Leaders Themselves  

Learn how you can best support your district’s school nutrition program by listening to the full panel discussion here and explore resources from the previous episodes.

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