At Windham Raymond Schools in Maine’s Portland suburbs, food isn’t just a service—it’s an ongoing discussion with students, their caregivers and the community at large.
In fact, communication is first in Director of School Nutrition Jeanne Reilly’s “7 Cs” recipe for success, followed by collaboration, culinary focus, creativity, culture in the community, customer service and constant change. The first and last C were particularly important the last two years, when another C arose that no one saw coming: COVID.
“Parents get to know their kids’ teachers, but [foodservice] can seem like this faceless entity,” Reilly says. “Because we’ve gotten to this place where we have a relationship with families, and they trust us to feed their children, we really didn’t get those calls with complaints when we had supply shortages.”
Building that tight bond with families takes much intentional effort from Reilly and the rest of the Windham Raymond nutrition team. For one, they’re active on social media, sharing videos, photos of the meals being served, news about new partnerships, open staff positions and more, and Reilly sometimes writes posts about her work on a personal blog.
But the real work happens in person, and it’s the team’s extension past the cafeteria that solidifies the relationship with the district’s 3,300 students and their families. Pre-COVID, the department coordinated with teachers to get into the classroom, combining cooking with lessons. One demo involved the children weighing carrots and doing math problems with them, peeling and chopping vegetables with supervision and helping Chef Ryan Roderick with all else involved in making curried carrot soup.
“It is so much fun, and the kids all love it,” Reilly says. “We do mixed groups with maybe two classrooms at a time, and we find that when students see their friends trying an ingredient or a cooking process, they’re more inclined to try it, too. Lots of them say, ‘Can you please put this on the menu?’ or ‘I want this recipe to take home!’’”
Windham Raymond Nutrition also ran an after-school cooking club that Reilly hopes to restart when the COVID risk abates, as she credits the club with much of the bridge-building.
“We’d be emailing parents of students in the club, sending samples home to their families and also meeting [caregivers] when they came to pick up,” Reilly says. “People don’t really have time in the drop-off line in the morning to talk, but this gave us some time to chat. It really, really built a bridge, and we’ve been able to expand this relationship gradually over from meeting the parents to becoming partners with the parents.”
Now, Reilly says, “families really trust us to feed their child well. We get emails all the time: ‘You know, my child is so much more of an adventurous eater because of what they're getting served in the cafeteria.’ In the middle of a board meeting this year, I was presenting, and a board member said, ‘My child who had never eaten asparagus before came home raving about your asparagus and now I have to buy it all the time.’ So we really believe that we're changing how students and their families are eating, and that’s what it’s all about.”
It's a heavy responsibility that the team takes seriously. Roderick, district chef and nutrition coordinator, could feel its importance as soon as he joined in 2016.
“I've definitely bought into this concept that we are building a generation of healthy eaters,” Roderick says. “It’s a sort of mission statement that makes it really easy to focus on the right things, because the reason for everything that we do is clear. Whether it’s scratch cooking as much as possible, introducing them to new ingredients or variations on them, focusing on whole foods—it dictates a lot of our choices in what we do.”
Like Reilly, he credits the “extracurriculars” like cooking club, Try It Tuesday samples and events such as Eat Your Way Through the Alphabet to celebrate National Nutrition Month with engaging students and their families, along with Reilly’s strong social media commitment.
For other operators looking to expand their footprints and relationships, again he says communication is key: Find out what others are doing. Talk to districts nearby or connect with peers via resources like School Meals That Rock, a favorite of Roderick’s.
“I’ve seen how it’s really important to build trust through a couple of different avenues if you want to reach most people,” Roderick says. “It doesn't happen overnight, but if you start slowly working on relationships with teachers and with parents, you can build those relationships outside of the cafeteria. It energizes you to keep going, and then it snowballs.”
Get to know Windham Raymond Schools’ Jeanne Reilly
See what’s in store for Reilly’s operation, which was named FSD’s May Foodservice Operation of the Month.
Q: What are your goals for the team in the coming year?
We’re still under sort of the “pandemic umbrella” level even though school and our service is fully back. For example, we’re not able to give students autonomy at the salad bar—we’ve had to eliminate a lot of that touch, that contact. But I’d like to see us getting back to what we can, with using the cafeteria as a classroom, as a place to have fun while learning.
With all kids having access to free breakfast and lunch, our participation is about 62% higher at lunch than it was pre-pandemic, and we’re 34% higher at breakfast. We didn’t really anticipate that, so staffing has been a bit of a challenge. I would love to continue to be at that level of participation, and I really enjoy being creative in how we solve the challenges that creates. Whether it's having alternative dining areas in the cafeteria or serving grab-and-go meals, I think it's time to look at what serving school meals looks like from a different lens.
Q: What makes your operation excel?
It’s the team and the district. Specifically, the team that works for me—Chef Ryan, my kitchen managers, my cooks, my kitchen helpers—are incredible. And beyond that, it's the commitment that this district has made to allow us to be creative, to have a district chef, to market our program on social media. It's the mission, the vision, the flexibility, and the creativity of our team that has really led to us having a great program overall. It’s a wonderful mix.Nominate an FSO of the Month