Mary Arlinda Hill, foodservice director for Jackson Public Schools, in Jackson Miss., is driven to improve the well-being of her students, 90 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price meals. This dedication, which has earned her an IFMA Silver Plate Award, is due in part, because she too attended the city’s schools.
“This is my school district,” she says. “So I do whatever it takes to make sure that things happen.”
Foodservice was not Hill’s chosen profession—education was. While working as a commercial foodservice instructor at R.H. Watkins Vocational Center in Laurel, Miss., Hill applied to become a commercial foods teacher in Jackson.
However, at the time what the district needed more than a teacher was a foodservice director, and administrators convinced her to take on that role instead. Hill says that when she agreed, she planned to stay in the position for five years..
Thirty-two years later, Hill is still making a difference in Jackson. Here are five accomplishments that have made her stand out:
1. Modernizing five school kitchens
In 2008, voters approved a $150 million bond to rebuild two schools and construct three new ones to help alleviate overcrowding in the district. The bond provided funds for Hill to design new kitchens.
The new kitchens included spacious walk-in refrigerator/freezers and work tables. Hill also received state Nutrition Integrity Grants to purchase five double-stack combi ovens for the new kitchens. The new equipment increased staff efficiency because they could prepare food ahead of time and store it in the cooler overnight.
“This allowed them to really do more planning,” Hill says, “and it also [gave] them more space because, in many instances, they were almost working on top of each other.”
2. Encouraging students to eat healthier
Hill also homes in on ways to encourage students to eat more fruits and vegetables. For example, each school offers its own variety of fruits and vegetables, based on student preferences. Hill encourages her managers to review their sales daily to determine which produce items are most popular. This increases the likelihood that students will actually eat what they select, she says.
Each school offers a salad of the day, including a Caesar salad and a chicken salad that are popular among students and staff. In addition, the new kitchens were outfitted with choppers, which allow staff to slice a variety of fruits and vegetables quickly and also improve the appearance of produce featured on the salad bar and serving line.
Hill’s efforts have paid off. In September 2012, 39 elementary schools were recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as HealthierUS Challenge Schools.
3. Promoting department initiatives
Hill also markets her department’s nutrition initiatives throughout the district. She created a district-wide celebration during National School Lunch Week and invited community leaders to come to schools to eat meals with students. As part of the week, students decorated classrooms, gave presentations and wrote essays with themes that connected school foodservice with classroom curriculum. Hill also developed a foodservice department logo that can be used on water bottles, t-shirts and hats to promote the department and emphasize the role that foodservice plays in students’ education.
4. Creating employee training programs
Hill developed a training regimen for all foodservice workers. The Cooks and Management Training program allows staff to learn foodservice management skills. It hones the skills of managers and gives hourly employees the background needed to move up the career ladder, if they so choose.
At least 50 percent of Hill’s management team have graduated from the program. In addition, all managers and area supervisors have completed Level 1 School Nutrition Association certification, which means they have received basic education in nutrition and food safety.
5. Encouraging employee wellness
In addition to providing students with healthier meals, Hill also encourages employees to embrace a healthier lifestyle. Each spring for the past four years, her department has been holding a “10 Lbs., 10 Weeks” weight-loss program. Staff members who lose at least 10 pounds receive a $25 gift card. The employee who loses the most weight receives an additional prize, such as a bike, and is honored at the annual Employee Recognition Dinner.
The foodservice department also hosts a 5-K Wellness Walk in October that is open to the community. Participants gather at Hughes Field, one of the district’s sports venues, to walk the perimeter with the superintendent, sample healthy snacks and/or participate in a line dancing session in the center of the field. As the event has grown, more vendors, such as the American Heart Association, have signed on to provide wellness tests and raise awareness about preventable diseases.
So, although Hill never joined the faculty of Jackson Public Schools, she nevertheless has been a teacher. Her positive influence has been felt not only by students, but by the community, as well.
“When I look at those children every day, it gives me the motivation I need to continue to do what I do,” she says. “This has been a wonderful right for me.”