Part 3: Q&A with Steve Smith, Director of Child Nutrition at Leander ISD (TX)

In this 3-part series, we highlight 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 tothrive in this “new normal.”

If you haven’t checked them out already, go read up on Part 1, with Marlon Gordon, Founder and CEO of NxtGen Innovators and Part 2, featuring Tracie Suter, Director of Nutrition Services at Joliet Public Schools in Illinois.

In this next post, we spotlight Steve Smith, Director of Child Nutrition at Leander ISD in Texas. Steve brings over 20 years of experience in Foodservice and Logistics Operations, including 12 years of operational management leadership within a central production facility. He currently manages a team of 375 employees at Leander ISD, serving 25,000 children per day. As a tenured K-12 child nutrition professional, he has successfully cross-trained in all facets of operations, including foodservice, facilities management, transportation, maintenance and human resources.

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

Steve: A lot of things have changed over the last two months, but if there's anything that we want our families to understand, it is that we are going to continue to serve our communities the best we can. Our engagement with our students is going to look different, but we're still there for them. I want our students and parentsto know that.

Mike: How have your communications to parents and students changed since the school closures?

Steve: We have a Leander newsletter that goes out weekly, and in that, we’ve started including information on participation trends for our free meals program and what our schedules are. We are only doing service at five of our 40 campuses, but there are families in the community that haven’t been to those schools, so we have been including maps and traffic flow patterns to help smooth the service model. We are definitely sharing new information more frequently, but I think the families are becoming accustomed to hearing from us more.

Mike: How are you planning for the fall?

Steve: We spent a lot of time collaborating with our administration to understand what the educational service model might look like. We're running three different scenarios at this time, identifying what the learning set up will be and if we continue to have remote learning, what feeding might look like. If there's social distancing in the schools, that can obviously change the number of students on campus. We’ll have to figure out if they’ll be coming to the lunch line or eating somewhere else outside the cafeteria. If we end up having another big increase in COVID-19 cases and have to close school again, then we have to be prepared to change the feeding model to how we’re doing it now. These changes have given us a chance to pause and take a moment to think about what resources are available to us, how are we best allocating those resources and how are we going to make it all a smooth process for our staff. We can use this opportunity to think more strategically and ask ourselves what’s out there in the foodservice environment that we have not yet integrated into K-12 that could make our industry better, stronger, and more innovative.

Mike: Do you feel like there will be a theme of adaptation now and in the future?

Steve: Adaptation is probably underused. We have shown a lot of innovation over the course of just a week where we've had to change the amount of resources that we've needed. Everything from our labor model and how we've worked with our vendors -- all of those things have had to change on a dime. And that new model, I think, is here to stay.

Mike: Is there anything specific that you are currently working on in preparation for the fall?

Steve: My district is low in free and reduced meals, so we market a lot of our a la carte items. We’re starting to look at different packaging, and figuring out how we continue to make the a la carte items available and easily accessible -- even outside of the cafeteria. The potential changes in a la carte concerns me quite honestly, because the majority of our sales come from that category. In non-congregate feeding, people are coming up to a unit to pick up items with potentially multiple touchpoints, so we have to diversify the locations where we're serving, and possibly how the items we are serving are being packaged. If we know what the student wants ahead of time, whether by pre ordering through a mobile ordering app or similar, that would allow us to quantify and be able to move that product to the students in a quicker way. But a la carte is the part that I'm most apprehensive about. If things like vending machines go away, how will that change food accessibility?

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

Steve: This pandemic has allowed us an opportunity to reevaluate and do things in a new way. Complacency is no longer part of our equation. When education was asked to go to a remote learning model, we were pushed to the forefront. We became the community’s contact and out of that came the opportunity to be in the spotlight. This has opened the door for us to have more conversations with our administrators, as well as our principals. They've seen that we can offer different service models to provide to their students beyond just serving in a cafeteria. We are figuring out how to make food accessible to the students, whether that’s in the classroom, or in the courtyard, or on a bus, or in any other scenario in which we can creatively come up with. I think there's a lot of opportunity there.

Mike: What role do you see technology playing in K-12 foodservice?

Steve: Mobile ordering is compelling because anything that explores an option in which we’re moving towards the students instead of them having to come to us is really exciting. That’s where we see opportunity in K-12. We have Nutrislice mobile ordering set up, and we had that before COVID-19 hit. It has been available to all of our elementary schools and our staff. We also have it available at all of our high schools for our students to be able to pre order and pick up. Since COVID-19hit, we've used it again as a platform to communicate with our community about where we are serving, or how families can get to us; what our menus are, etc. We have also been using the platform to get an understanding of where families intend to pick up their meals, which has helped us get an idea of how many times a week they are planning to go to a particular site and how many meals they are planning to pick up. It’s been very effective and efficient. It’s also helped get our community accustomed to us communicating with them more, and it’s also been a way for us to get feedback so we can support them. It’s become a good two-way communication tool through this COVID-19 situation.

Mike: What expectations do you think parents and students are going to have this fall as they return back to school?

Steve: There's a lot of things that have changed over the last two months. We’ve had to significantly increase our communications, like I mentioned, but we’ve also received feedback that parents are starting to feel overwhelmed, which is understandable. They're just receiving so much information from so many different places, and are also feeling the stress of playing dual roles as a parent and as a teacher. One of the things that we can and are doing on our end is to make sure that we only use one portal (like the Nutrislice app) or one vehicle in which to communicate to our parents. When it comes to the feeding program, we’ve shown them that we can adapt to their needs. I imagine they’ll expect that we’re going to continue to adapt to their needs, whatever that situation may look like come the fall.

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

Steve: I think this is an opportunity for us to recognize that we need to brush up on our change management skills. Tomorrow and the next day is going to look a lot different than we’re used to. It’s so important to be cognizant of how we as leaders can continue to evolve ourselves. We need to be constantly looking in the mirror and reflecting back.

Mike: Any closing comments?

Steve: Growing up, I never thought that this would be my profession. But now, I’m 22 years into it and loving it. I’m excited that we have an opportunity now to innovate and change what we're doing in K-12.