Part 2: Q&A with Tracie Suter, Director of Nutrition Services at Joliet Public Schools (IL)

In this 3-part series, we are highlighting conversations with three dining experts from our recent K-12 Foodservice in a COVID-19 World webinar, where we talk all about the operational, workforce and menu changes, and how to start preparing in order to thrive in this “new normal.”

If you didn’t catch Part 1 featuring Marlon Gordon, Founder and CEO of NxtGen Innovators, you can read up on his plans and recommendations for how to prepare and operate K-12 foodservice once schools reopen.

TracieSuterBlogIn this next post, we feature Tracie Suter, the Director of Nutrition Services for Joliet Public Schools in Joliet, Illinois, serving 12,000 students in 20 buildings under the community eligibility provision. Tracie is actively involved in the Child Nutrition industry, serving in a variety of capacities on her state association board, purchasing cooperative board and with many local community outreach programs. She is past President of the Illinois School Nutrition Association and currently serves as the ACDA Chair. Tracie has been in child nutrition for more than 20 years and holds the credentials of School Nutrition Specialist.

Mike: What do you want students and parents to know about your operation as we get ready for schools to reopen?

Tracie: I want them to know that our meals are still the same and we are still focused on quality, safety and service. Everything is different, but at the same time, nothing has really changed in that regard. Our emergency feeding program has been a great opportunity to show our parents and community that we can get the job done, and parents can see firsthand the quality of food that the students are eating at school every day. We have a real opportunity to show parents that we're here for them and their children, just like we’ve always been.

Mike: In your perspective and experience, what positives have been spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic?

Tracie: There has never been a better time to be on social media, and now we get such a great opportunity to share information about our programs, talk about our plans, discuss best practices, ask questions and just be vulnerable and transparent. I've always loved that our industry is non-competitive and this is a great time to throw it all out there, see what people are doing and pick out what might work for you. Not everything is going to work for every district, but there's certainly a lot of opportunity to see what everybody is doing and just figure out what will work best for you.

Mike: There are some new scenarios and service models being discussed right now for K-12 foodservice, including staggered lunches, hotspot delivery locations, alternate attendance days, and in-classroom lunches. Which of these scenarios gets you most excited?

Tracie: I think we’ll start to see a lot more in-classroom feedings, so we will need more individually wrapped items that can transport well. This is something that people need to consider. We need to ask ourselves how we can translate our current practices into a different service model, like delivery or feeding in the classroom. Are we prepared for that? How will we serve individually-wrapped items? Those are the things to be thinking about and preparing for.

What may happen in my district in particular, is the model where half of the kids are going to eat in the cafeteria, and half will eat in their classroom. And that’s exciting because it’s an opportunity to increase participation. As I said earlier, the parents now know what students are getting; they've had an opportunity to see the quality of our meals and what we're serving. So I'm excited about just keeping that trust level going, whether it's in the cafeteria or in the classroom, and continue to provide the service that we do really well.

Mike: As we are all pushed into this COVID-19 world, what role do you see technology playing in K-12 foodservice?

Tracie: Technology has become a really good way for us to get and give information through things like Zoom calls and social media. I'm seeing people post things about new products that are coming out, important information, I've had vendors contact me asking how they can help, people are pushing Zoom calls instead of coming in for in-person meetings to talk about our needs, and so on. The use of technology in this way is now becoming mainstream for us, and is likely here to stay, and I think it's a great way to elevate our business practice.

Mike: How are you communicating out to your parents inside your district?

Tracie: I use both social media, like Twitter and Facebook, as well as email. Communication is very important and is a huge part of the success of any operation. It’s also a great way for us to quickly and effectively communicate out to our community and parents if we hit a challenge as we navigate new scenarios almost daily.

Mike: What's one thing do you hope every operator is doing right now as they think about the future?

Tracie: All of us should be continuing to collaborate with not only fellow service directors and industry members, but also our staff. We need to ensure that they are fully aware of what's happening at all times and include them in conversations about our plans for the future. Including staff in these conversations is so important to keeping their morale up, keeping them happy and doing what they do best.

Mike: Any closing comments?

Tracie: I encourage everyone to continue to ideate and talk to people about what's going on. Do your research, read about what's happening nationwide, not just in K-12, but in other service segments. Gather all that information and then do what works best for you and your district.