Five Questions for: Julie Farris
Julie Farris is the child nutrition director for 13,600-student Rockwall Independent School District in Texas. Rockwall is the smallest county in Texas, covering just 147 square miles. Because of this, Farris says she gets creative to increase the child nutrition department's reach.
Your district is in the smallest county in Texas, how does this affect the foodservice department?
We are on the outskirts of the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex, so we really don't have any of the disadvantages that some districts in west Texas districts might, such as logistics for things like the food supply. Being in a small county, you really get to know everybody. Being a small county has actually been a benefit when promoting the meal plans with parents. It has been very helpful for me to be able to meet the community on a regular basis and be able to promote the meal program as a nutritious, cost-effective option for parents. In addition, we find creative ways to provide services.
How have you gotten creative to expand the department's services and reach?
We have become the meal provider for the local Meals on Wheels program. We've also launched a catering element. It started for internal catering, but now we do outside catering as well. We've done tribute dinners for our local congressman, and fundraising meals and sports banquets. We've quadrupled our business in the last four years with catering.
Tell me a little more about being the Meals on Wheels provider. How and when did you get involved with this program?
We started this in October of 2004. Our chamber of commerce does a leadership program each year and through the leadership program, I met the assistant director for our local United Way. The United Way agency houses the Committee on Aging, which had just split off from a neighboring county. That United Way director told the new Committee on Aging director about me and the programs we were doing in the schools. She went to my superintendent and asked if the schools could provide the meals for the Meals on Wheels program. We started with 25 clients, and now we are up to 110 every day. The meals are produced at our alternative high school. That helped us keep that site financially viable. It has been a good joint venture. That's one of the efficiencies of being in a small county. In a large county like Dallas, the Meals on Wheels program usually has to invest in their own kitchen. For our program, they didn't have to do that.
You also share services with other districts in your area. How does that work?
To provide quality training at an affordable cost, we have a trainer that we share with about 12 other districts. We started this seven or eight years ago. Many districts are not large enough to have their own trainer, so this is a way to provide training at a reasonable cost. In Texas, we can do a shared services agreement where one district is the host district and the other districts pay that district for that employee and they share that person. We are the host for the trainer. Each district purchases the number of days it wants. The trainer does the first level of our association's training and helps us with compliance monitoring for things like making sure the cashiers are counting and claiming correctly.
What advice do you have for directors in smaller district who want to expand their department's reach into the community?
Get involved. If you have a chamber of commerce see if you can become a member and go to the events. Try to talk to different groups like the Lions Club and rotary because adults' perception of child nutrition is from when they went to school and we need to change that to get their buy-in for the programs because we are here to support their children. That has made all the difference with our participation. Last week was our first week of school and we had noticeably more students coming through the serving lines than in prior years. So parents were probably saying, "Go buy your lunch because I know it's a good deal."