Mary Lou Henry: Tennessee Titan

Knowing the importance of fruits and vegetables, Henry allows students to choose additional produce items at both breakfast and lunch at no additional cost. “Our children no longer have to decide if they want orange juice or a banana with their cereal,” she says. “They can now have both if they choose.”

Henry adds, “If a child takes advantage of the extra fruits and vegetables at school, with breakfast and lunch, they can actually get their five fruits and vegetables each day, even if they don’t get any more at home.”

The district also recently started a cycle menu program. There is a basic 11-day menu that each school follows, and every manager has the option to add additional choices to their own school’s menu. Henry says the change makes things like ordering, inventory and managing leftovers easier for the cafeteria managers. “The cycle menu allows for less waste of food items and, therefore, makes it more affordable to add the additional fruits and vegetables at no additional cost to the meal,” she says. By having a set number of items, the managers know exactly what to order and don’t have to worry about items sitting in the freezer for a month, waiting to be placed on the menu again.

Knowing the importance food has on students’ ability to learn, Henry suggested one elementary principal turn her at-risk school into a Provision III school, meaning all students would receive free breakfast and lunch. She also implemented a program where breakfast was served in the classroom. But even though tardiness and the number of students waiting outside the nurse’s office have decreased and the school is no longer on the at-risk list, Henry isn’t basking in the limelight. “I’m not about to take credit for it all,” she says. “The principal put many other things into practice.”

Staff improvements: To increase professionalism in the staff, Henry used money in the foodservice account to buy uniforms for the department’s more than 600 employees. “The staff love it because they don’t have to worry about what they are going to wear to work each day or furnish it for themselves,” she says.

“The juggling act of keeping everything going on a day-to-day basis—the equipment all running properly and the staff at each school covered—” is what Henry says is the most difficult part of her job. “We have (more than) 600 personnel and lots of days we work short,” she says. Compounding the problem, she adds, is the urban location of the district, meaning there are a high number of foodservice jobs available. “There are lots of (employment) options,” she explains. “And the schools aren’t always the best paying and they do not always (offer) the best benefits, so you have a fairly (high) turnover within the system.”

In an effort to minimize that turnover, Henry uses an employee recognition program with a year-end awards banquet, and a training program that, if taken, can increase workers’ hourly wages by 80 cents. “We try to make it attractive and show them we appreciate the job that they do,” she says.

Last year, Henry applied for and received a $10,000 grant from the state for the district’s wellness program. Knox County was one of 10 districts to receive a grant. The funds went into an in-service training for principals and other school personnel on how to organize and start their own Coordinated School Health Program, of which Henry is now a member.

In addition, five pieces of exercise equipment were purchased and placed in the central office for the 200-plus employees at that location to use. While the schools had exercise areas, she says, the central office didn’t have one. “One of the pieces of the (Coordinated School Health Program) is exercise, not only for students but staff as well,” Henry says.

One of Henry’s goals for the program is “to continue to provide healthy and delicious meals to the students of Knox County Schools, as well as to teach the importance of lifelong food choices that contribute to the students’ overall well being.”

“The most rewarding part (of my job) is when you go out to schools and you see these happy little kids coming through the lines,” she says. “You know that you are giving them good quality food, and probably in most cases, the best meal they are going to have all day.”

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