Jeffrey Boyce: I’m Jeffrey Boyce and it is May 30, 2013, and I am here at the National Food Service Management Institute with Jennifer Jennings, of where in Wisconsin?
Jennifer Jennings: It’s Elroy.
JB: Elroy, Wisconsin – welcome Jennifer and thanks for taking the time to talk to me today.
JJ: Thanks for having me here.
JB: Let’s begin with you telling us a little bit about yourself, where you were born and where you grew up.
JJ: I was born and raised in Sauk City, Wisconsin. Otherwise it’s Sauk Prairie. It’s kind of like the twin cities in Minnesota. There are two villages – one road divided them. The other one is Sauk Prairie. I was born and raised there.
JB: Did you go to elementary school there?
JJ: Yes. It was two houses down from my house so I got to walk. I did not have to ride the bus until third grade. And then third through sixth grade I had to take the bus to Prairie du Sac which is the prairie of Sauk Prairie. And then when I hit middle school it wasn’t cool to ride the bus and that was only two miles away from my house so I ended up walking in middle school and high school.
JB: Well that was good exercise, two miles.
JJ: It was.
JB: So, where did you go to school after that?
JJ: I graduated early in January and then I went to Madison Area Technical College right away just to get some gen eds out of the way. I attended that throughout the summer and then I went to Sauk Valley Technical College in Appleton, and was there a year, and I got bored with my major so I quit, because food service sounded so much better.
JB: What was your major?
JJ: Administrative Assistant
JJ: I got involved with food service at Burger King, because they made management sound so much better than what I was going to school for.
JB: Ok. So from there what brought you into child nutrition?
JJ: Well, it is a long story. So I have pretty much been in food service since I was 18. And after Burger King I moved home and met my husband and we moved to Wonewoc and I worked at Culver’s at that time which was a fast food joint. And I was working eighty hours every week and it was kind of bad with trying to be married and working, you’re never home, and there was an ad in the paper for a school nutrition director and my husband told me to apply. And I was like, “I am not qualified.” They wanted an associate degree and all of this other stuff, and I said, “Well, I will apply and see what I get,” since I had only worked in management in fast food. So we went on a cruise and came back and I had a message on the phone that they wanted me to come in for an interview. I was kind of shocked so I said okay and I went in for the interview and it took four weeks before I heard back from them because the superintendent was only a quarter of the time superintendent. And when I got the call back they offered me the job and that was six years ago.
JB: Oh wow! Well backing up just a little bit, did you participate in school lunch when you were a student?
JJ: I did. We didn’t have breakfast back then.
JB: What were some of your favorite menu items?
JJ: My absolute favorite was beef and gravy – it was just hamburger crumbles with gravy over mashed potatoes.
JB: Ok. Good hearty food.
JJ: That was my favorite and then the pizza.
JB: I am a bit older so I don’t remember pizza in school. I don’t think that we had it when I was there. Ok, so you have been a director for six years now?
JB: Ok. Have you had any mentors or anyone who’s helped guide you as you develop in the profession?
JJ: When I first started I had no clue of what to do. Our Department of Public Instruction has tons of classes, so I took every single one of them that summer that I could possibly take, with meal patterns, how to do production records. That’s where I started. And then I got involved with the School Nutrition Association of Wisconsin. And I believe Katie Wilson at that time was our president and was then our past president. So I was kind of hearing about all of the stuff that she would talk about, and so I kind of look up to her as a mentor. But there are other people that I have gotten to be friends with in the association that are also mentors too that stayed in Wisconsin, so I do have a good core group that I call if I have any questions and now especially with the new regulations we really rely on each other, big-time.
JB: That’s one thing I hear as I do these interviews, is that people are really open to sharing. If they have something that will help you they don’t mind passing it along.
JJ: No. We like to share. Why reinvent the wheel?
JB: Do you feel like your educational background helped you in this position, or maybe your management experience in fast food?
JJ: The management is definitely what helped me with the management side of it. Not knowing so much about school nutrition, that’s where DPI helped, and my networking especially helped. But I did go back to school for my Certified Dietary Manager last year. I went back to school and got my degree and took the national boards so I got my license for CDM.
JB: Good for you.
JJ: So that actually helped – more awareness especially now with the new regs, and the calorie impact, and how it all flows together, so it kind of made more sense when I went through that schooling.
JB: How many schools do you have?
JJ: We are four schools in two buildings. We are a small district. It’s very rural – about 596 are enrolled. One building is K-third grade and our main building, where our central kitchen is, is a 4-12, and only one cafeteria.
JB: So you do shifts?
JJ: We do, and it’s very, very time-consuming.
JB: What’s your participation rate?
JJ: Seventy-five to eighty percent. We do 450 breakfasts and lunches, so 900 meals a day.
JB: Is there anything unique about Wisconsin regarding child nutrition programs?
JJ: The kids LOVE cheese. [Laughter] And they always want brats, which we cannot serve brats.
JB: Oh, why not?
JJ: Unless we can find a child nutrition labeled brat – it is really hard to find one – because you don’t really know what’s in the brat. There is so much pork and fat.
JJ: So it’s really hard to find a child nutrition brat. So those are two things. Anything with cheese on it that we serve is usually our highest number days – at least in our district.
JB: What’s a typical day like for you – or is there such a thing?
JJ: It depends if I have staff that call in, because I’m the director and head cook, so I have lots of hats. I usually start my day off at six in the morning. We usually get a delivery truck right at six o’clock two days a week, so when they come in I have to unload the order right away. So those days get a little clumped together. But I usually have my weekly production records and prep sheets all done the week before. So it’s just bringing them out – starting the prepping right away. We try to prep the breakfast the day before se we can start cooking that right away, because we start breakfast at 7:30 in the morning. It’s a lot of time management, it’s just constant go, go, go, go. And then I do my paperwork in the afternoon usually, but I have to get my ordering done in the morning. So it is a lot of time management and each day is very unique.
JB: And you said you get two deliveries a week?
JJ: Yes, from our prime vendor. And then we get two from our milk delivery, and one from our bread.
JB: How many employees do you have?
JJ: I have four and myself, so a total of five.
JB: What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced since you’ve been in this career?
JJ: Time management.
JB: Not enough hours in the day?
JJ: Not enough hours in the day. I learned very early you can’t please everyone. And you need to follow more the regulations than what the kids want. And you just try to sample things. But it comes down to time management, what you can do and what you can’t do.
JB: How much of what people call scratch cooking do you do, or is it more convenience food?
JJ: Up until the last couple of months it’s been convenience, just with the time that we have and limited staff. I’m slowly trying to get back to scratch, because it sounds like that’s where we’re going to, going back to the old fifties way seems like of making everything from scratch. I have switched and gotten a whole-grain dinner roll that comes as an already pre-done dough. You’ve just got to proof it. So we’re slowly taking those steps.
JB: Do the kids enjoy it?
JJ: Yes. They absolutely went crazy with those rolls. And I’d say they were amazing. They were worth the time. I’m slowly trying to find the time to be able to do it.
JB: Nothing like the smell of fresh-baked bread, even if it is partially done.
JJ: Right. They don’t know that. They just know that we made it.
JB: What changes have you seen so far in your career?
JJ: The regulations of how much fruits and vegetables the little kids need have definitely gone up. And with that going up I’ve seen more waste, because their little bellies can’t consume it all. Trying to incorporate new vegetables with the new regulations has been interesting, because they’re so used to their core – their corn, their peas, the broccoli, cauliflower. Now we are trying to incorporate sweet potatoes, and the legumes, and other things they haven’t seen – kidney beans vs. baked beans. So I would say it’s mostly the vegetable and fruit trends that have been the changes.
JB: What are some of the ways you’ve tried to get them to accept the new vegetables?
JJ: With the sweet potatoes I mixed the sweet potatoes and regular French fries together and called them calico fries, just to see if they would take them. And of course they said, “We don’t want the orange ones. We want the white ones.” “Well, that’s not how it goes. You get both, and make the decision.” So they fight them a little bit, but when they realize they don’t have a choice then they’re like, “Okay.” On our salad bar for the legume part we put hummus out. And we didn’t tell them what it was, we just put it out there, and said it was dip, just to see if they would try it, not knowing it was hummus. And they would take it for their carrots or their broccoli or anything they could dip into it. And that actually seemed to work very well. As long as I didn’t tell them what it was they were okay with it.
JB: As long as you don’t say ‘healthy’ they’ll give it a try.
JJ: Exactly, exactly.
JB: What would you say has been your most significant contribution so far to child nutrition?
JJ: I lost weight just by portion sizes, and so the students saw this. And they always want more food, they want more food. And they want to know why we can’t give them more food. And then while I was going through my weight loss process they were like, “Well, how are you doing this?” And I said, “Because I’m not eating like you guys eat now.” And so I kind of had to do a nutrition class of the right way to eat, and why vegetables are important, why fruit is important, kind of go down to their level rather than trying to be a director. Instead of just being so clockwork on the bread, the meat, the fruits, the vegetables, actually taking the time and explaining to the children how everything effects how they eat, how they live, how they sleep. That was pretty significant – and they changes their eating habits.
JB: I understand that you’re a fourth-generation child nutrition professional.
JB: Tell me about the others that came before you.
JJ: I did not know my great-grandma was until my mom told me recently. My great-grandma was a cook for four years. I knew my grandma was a cook, and everyone LOVED my grandma. She was a staple at Blackhawk School. And then my mom was the a-la-carte lady at the middle school, and I begged her to leave the middle school before I got there. And now I kind of look back and see that was so silly, because if I didn’t have money she had money – it would have been perfect. She liked it because all the kids were there. Well, they all called her Mom, and that made me mad, so I was like ‘No, that’s my mom’. And I honestly never thought I’d fall into school food. I guess it’s in our blood, something to do with food, somehow or another. It’s been really interesting – I knew about my mom and my grandma, but then I found out my great-grandma had a role in school food too. I thought that was pretty amazing – uncommon to hear.
JB: Yes, really – four generations. Any memorable stories about special children, or people that you’ve worked with?
JJ: Unfortunately, my 77-year-old cook had to retire this year, so it’s been bittersweet. She was so reluctant to change. When I came in I was brand new, so she was telling me exactly how it is. When I started, exactly how it is was not the right way to do it; she did not like that at all. She did not like change. I could not change her mind on anything. So I was kind of forced to say, “No, it is what it is,” and move on from there. I did end up getting a great friendship out of it. I always valued our time from 6 to 6:30 because no one else was there. It was just the two of us talking. We would work at the same time, but it was kind of like the time I got to know her a little bit better, and no one else was there, so it was kind of like our time. She’s the one that’s out for medical reasons, but it’s been a rough few months without her there, and I just found out before I came here that she was retiring. So it was a little bittersweet on that. She had a lot of impact on me. She told me stories of back in the day with the scratch cooking, to where it came to it comes prepared. You just warm it up. So it was quite interesting to hear what she could tell me, more than the other cooks could tell me.
JB: The changes she had seen in her career.
JJ: Yes. And the other one was truly a-la-carte, the other lady that I work with. She’s a great friend, but she’s not as knowledgeable as the other one, because she was the head cook for a while – we needed an interim – so she knew all the paperwork aspect of it, and did not want the job. I had more of a bond with her. They had to force me out sometimes and say, “You need a break. Get out of here.” And the other two people I hired, so they didn’t have the knowledge of the school history. We also have TAs that work in our district –
JB: And a TA is – ?
JJ: A teacher’s aide, so we have students. We have juniors and seniors that come and work for us. We also have two eight-grade – girls usually – that come in. They help with dishes, and they’ll help serve food. They help clean up. They help get the milk out. They’re phenomenal, and then they see the different side of us. So that almost buys them into the program too. And the relationships I’ve built with them – they are great. I don’t have any bad things to say. I’ve had a great experience.
JB: And what do these TAs get for their assistance?
JJ: The juniors and seniors actually get a credit for their class. The eighth-grade girls just get the experience, and we give them a treat, and sometimes a free lunch if they decide to eat. And of course the eighth-grade girls are picky about what they eat. They’re probably the pickiest out of the whole district, that eighth-grade girl bunch. So if they decide to eat we let them eat for free that day, but they don’t get a credit for class until they are a junior or senior level.
JB: What advice would you give someone who was considering child nutrition as a profession today?
JJ: It’s a great experience. You will definitely either love it or you will hate it. If you hate it get out. Don’t stay with it because you’ll bring your program down. If you love it stay with it. The networking alone is worth its weight in gold. It can be challenging at times, but you definitely need to be up for the challenge. I just love it so I will sell it to anyone that I can. The kids are like, “I don’t know what I want to go to school for.” “Go to be a dietitian. Get in with the schools.” The benefits – it depends what district you get with. They can be great, they may not be, so you definitely have to be able to love the program, and love being around kids, and knowing that you’re making an impact on their lives for what they eat. And then you’re setting the pattern for how they eat for the rest of their lives, because you’re touching them from kindergarten through senior year – thirteen, fourteen years of their lives that you could impact a child on what they eat, and being able to show them that there is more out there than McDonalds.
JB: Anything else you’d like to add?
JJ: I think it’s very cool that I can say I’m fourth-generation, because it is very uncommon, but I just really believe in child nutrition, and if we can make a difference in someone’s life then – I love what I do, I actually do.
JB: That’s important. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me today.
JJ: Thank you.
Updated January 19, 2021:
Jennifer Jennings: When I got into school nutrition in August of 2007 for a small, rural school district, I found out that I was following in the footsteps of a few ladies in my life. My great grandma, grandma, and mother all were previous cooks in a K-12 setting. None of them were leads or directors just cooks for the same school district at different times. My mom said I received the highest honor being the director and since becoming a director I went on to be on the board of the SNA-WI in many different areas. I began as just a committee member and eventually became Vice President and finished as Past President. I learned so much being a part of the board along with the Association as a whole.
My great grandma started as a cook when the school opened in 1955 and retired in 1960, my grandma worked for the same school from 1968-1982, and my mom worked for the Middle School 1984-1988. They all worked for the same school district; I was hired with a different district.
A fun story my mom told me about my grandma and another cook is that they created a recipe to use abundance of the USDA sweet potatoes. My mom said they submitted their “pumpkin bar” recipe to USDA (which I am not sure how to even check as it was so long ago) and when my mom was a cook, that is the recipe their school district used after my grandma retired.