Marcia Smith: Hometown Girl

Marcia Smith is proof that you don't have to stray far from home to make a difference in the world.

Marcia Smith, Polk County Schools, Silver Plate 2009, FoodService Director, April 2009

At A Glance: Marcia Smith
•Director, School Foodservice
•Polk County Schools, Bartow, Fla.
•B.S. in school lunch administration, Florida State University; M.B.A., Webber College; Ph.D. business administration, Kennedy Western University
•Past president, School Nutrition Association and recipient of the USDA Best Practice Award for "Food Safety HACCP Implementation Through Online Training."
•Oversees 111 self-op cafeterias, satellite service to 50 other locations, including private sites, smaller school programs and pre-K sites serving 78,000 reimbursable meals a day.
•Manages 900 employees in a program with an annual budget of $34 million.
•Fierce anti-hunger advocate who creates a culture in which staffers care deeply about children and nutritious food options.
•Eating healthy permeates her life. "Currently, I have yogurt, cheese, milk and fresh fruits and veggies and tapioca pudding in the refrigerator. The freezer has a lot of frozen fruits, veggies, chicken and fish." At school, students take part in menu development and strict criteria ensure that fat, sugar and salt are within district guidelines. À la carte items must meet strict wellness policy criteria, and sales have increased 25% thanks to varied and nutritious options.

Perhaps it was her innate nurturing instincts that steered Marcia Smith to a lifelong career as a school foodservice director. Today, she is acclaimed for advancing nutrition education, developing and mentoring employees and seeking to end child hunger not just in the Polk County (Fla.) Schools, but worldwide. Smith won the "She Knows Where She's Going" award in 2003 from Girls, Inc., and those who know her see that phrase as a fitting description of the intense focus she brings to her job.

"Many people this year talk about the economy as the greatest challenge facing school foodservice directors, and it's a big challenge. But, truthfully, finding enough money has been a problem for many years. Today's financial situation makes meeting the needs of children hard and our reimbursement rates need to be higher, but we always have to do our best. I'm very hopeful that the rates will be raised this year. We just learned the stimulus package has a provision for buying new foodservice equipment.

When I was growing up I always wanted to be a nurse. My mother was a nurse, and I began a degree in nursing, but I quickly changed my mind.When I decided nursing was not for me, my mother kept reminding me how much I enjoyed cooking and asked ‘why not consider a degree in home economics?' Because I wasn't interested in sewing or fashion design, I decided a degree in food and nutrition was a more logical choice. I knew I wanted to make a difference in the lives of children so that seemed a perfect fit. Working for Polk County Schools was also the right choice for me. I was able to use what I learned pursuing my degree and I knew that I would be making a difference in the lives of the children we serve every day. I moved to Polk County when I was two years old and really like the area. All of my family lives in Polk County.   

Developing employees and mentoring are very important to me. I use a video that centers around It's A Wonderful Life frequently when teaching leadership classes. I'm one of several people who teach future leaders through the School Nutrition Association each year. It's similar to what we do in our school foodservice program with our own employees. We have a leadership academy and train employees to become managers and we like to give a theme to our classes to make it more fun and interesting. Previously, we've used an Alice in Wonderland theme.

There are several key learning points that I strive to follow and teach when working with people: Leaders can come from anywhere in the organization; prove that small acts of kindness do make a difference; seek to serve others; recognize when courage is called for; speak truthfully; encourage people to live up to their potential; be a colleague others can depend on.

My passion for feeding students healthy, nutritious meals and for eliminating childhood hunger has been fueled by my work with SNA. The association has given me so many opportunities to work on projects to help our most precious resource-the children we feed every day. This includes working with the Global Child Nutrition Foundation. Because SNA sent me to a conference in  England where we talked about the association and the school foodservice program in the U.S., the Undersecretary of the Department of Agriculture later asked me to take part in a trip to Hong Kong. The goal was to share what we were doing as far as the type of meals we were providing. In addition, we wanted to share our projects on increasing consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables. Several years later, one of the people I met invited me to  the Global Child Nutrition Forum to speak about the meal program.  

The district has a strategic three-year plan. We are in our second year. Unfortunately, it will not all be accomplished in three years, but some of the goals will carry over. In addition, our department has its own separate strategic plan. Goal No. 1 states: Provide all students a school breakfast and lunch at no charge. I believe this is where we start to eliminate hunger. The other goals are to provide varied and nutritionally sound foods and to create and market a positive image of the school nutrition program.

When I first started, all materials, job descriptions, manuals, etc. referred to our staff with the word ‘worker.' When I would go out to visit the schools, they would refer to themselves [the same way], saying: "I am just a worker." I wanted to change that image. Everyone else had a formal title: principal, teacher, bus driver, custodian. I began by changing the wording in every document to foodservice assistant and then started correcting people when they would refer to our employees as workers. We kept reminding them not to refer to themselves as ‘just a worker.' They play a very important part in the lives of the children they serve. Some-
times they are the ones who make a really big difference for them.   

As we strive to try new and innovative ways to reach our customers, our sales volume has continued to increase and is now $12 million. Participation also continues to grow, but we've also had an increase in enrollment. Our number of students receiving free and reduced meals has also increased. We have an all-time high of 62%. Our participation is good, but I am concerned about employee morale. We have not been able to give raises and the school district is talking about additional cuts. Recently, someone shared an article with me about eight rules to ‘survive-even thrive' in 2009. The one rule that I am trying to follow is that as the director, I know the employees are looking to me for leadership, direction, confidence and a strong assurance that everything will be all right. I try to remember that every time I am speaking to my employees.  

It is very rewarding when I'm interviewing new foodservice employees and the first thing I ask them is, ‘Why do you want to pursue a career in school foodservice?' When they respond, ‘because I love the children,' I know that we have another employee who will be with us long term. It's also very rewarding when I receive letters from adults who tell me that a foodservice employee made a difference in their life when they were in school.  

Without my staff, there would be no awards. We're like a large extended family. We know we have a job to do, but we have fun doing it. Seeing someone progress all the way to management is very rewarding."