Lucretia Chancler: Helping feed a hometown in need
At a Glance
Supervisor of Child Nutrition
St. Landry Parish
10,000—Meals served daily
14,000—Students in the St. Landry Parish School district
- Received the 2016 Director of the Year Award from the School Nutrition Association
- Started an after-school supper program and expanded the summer meals program, which now delivers food by bus directly to communities in need
- Implemented software to offer online meal payment and free and reduced-price meal applications, as well as nutritional analysis software for students with allergies and special diets
Lucretia Chancler’s roots lie in Louisiana’s St. Landry Parish. She grew up in the parish, and her mother taught in the school district for 33 years—even occasionally teaching young Lucretia. Advanced degrees and a post-grad job took her to Colorado, Georgia and other places, but St. Landry soon called Chancler back home.
In October 2009, Chancler returned to Louisiana to become St. Landry’s supervisor of child nutrition. The parish’s economic makeup is a big driver behind Chancler’s local mission: More than 85% of the 14,000 students at the parish’s 32 schools are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch through the National School Lunch Program, she says. And more than 30% of people in the parish live below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“With any foodservice program, you’re going to have your challenges,” Chancler says. “But this school system gave me a lot. It gave me a good foundation where I could go thrive in any environment. If there’s just a little bit I can give back, I have no problem doing that.”
St. Landry’s $10 million annual budget depends on grants from federal programs like Head Start. “If there’s a program we might qualify for, I’m going for it,” Chancler says. That means she and her team—the “Lunch Bunch,” as they call themselves—are constantly filling out grant paperwork. “If I have to stay there all night working, I’ll do it, but I don’t go around saying, ‘Oh, I stayed here all night.’ I get it done,” Chancler says. “That’s what I tell my staff, too: ‘You get it done.’ This is about service to others.”
All eyes on the future
Upon her return to St. Landry, Chancler had dreams for all kinds of unique foodservice programs. But she started with the basics by upgrading the department’s sorely outdated technology with dizzying speed: first came new computers, followed by food item barcode scanners and an online nutrition information center. Next, she added online options to make payments and apply for free and reduced-price lunch, plus one of the state’s first reimbursable vending machines, in which students can key in their birthdate and ID number to receive a healthy free meal without waiting in line. Since, there have been other upgrades, including new point-of-sale systems.
All the new technology meant plenty of work for Craig Tyler, St. Landry’s IT specialist. “She guided us into the new millennium,” Tyler says of Chancler. “Before, we were all kind of going through the motions. But when the old regime goes out and you replace them with fresh, innovative minds like hers, you see new ways to meet the needs of our parish. I’ve been [working at St. Landry] for 32 years, and we’ve come such a long way since she’s been here.”
The community connection
While the tech upgrade was necessary to meet modern standards, one of Chancler’s biggest accomplishments is what she calls the “Summer Feeding Bus Tour.” Through federal funding, St. Landry already offered free meals to anyone under 18 who visited designated feeding sites such as schools during the summer. But Chancler realized some needy kids couldn’t or wouldn’t walk to schools in the blazing Louisiana heat.
Remembering a former classmate who enacted a bus program in Burke County, Ga., Chancler decided that if the kids couldn’t come to the food, the food would come to them. She and her team worked with the Louisiana State Department and the Housing Authority to develop the service, and Chancler personally visited local low-income housing complexes to determine how to reach as many children as possible.
“I felt that interaction with the community was missing,” says Chancler, who rode the bus frequently at the beginning of the inaugural summer 2015 service. “The bus tour gets us out there. We talk to parents and grandparents, and we get to know them and they get to know us.” The program now feeds about 950 students each day during the summer months.
Nourishing bodies and hearts
The mission to make a difference for St. Landry’s children carries through Chancler’s daily leadership, says Tyler. “A kid’s mind has to be nourished; they can’t think when they’re hungry,” Tyler says. “She knows that, and she always has the kids’ interests at heart. She always tells us, ‘These children are your dining customers, and it’s your job to give them a restaurant experience.’” Among Chancler’s goals for this school year: Transitioning to a newly built cafeteria, expanding the reimbursable vending machine program and continuing to secure grants for new equipment and programs.
It’s a big year for Chancler personally, too: Before the year is out, she’ll turn 40 and marry fiance Conrad Hertzock. Chancler praises both Hertzock and her mother for helping her keep focused on larger goals, even amid challenges. “Seeing these kids’ faces, when they enjoy their meal, or when the little kids come give you a hug and tell you they loved lunch, it reminds you who you’re doing it for,” says Chancler, who also warns her staff to leave personal problems at home and focus on the students. “It’s my kids. They’re my boss.”