For Mary Arlinda Hill, the drive to improve the well-being of her students, 90 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price meals, is personal. As a child, she attended the city’s schools, herself. “This is my school district,” she says. “So I do whatever it takes to make sure that things happen.”
Education was Hill’s first profession, not foodservice. After working as a commercial-foods teacher at R.H. Watkins Vocational Center in Laurel, Miss., she applied for a teaching position at Jackson Public Schools in Jackson, Miss. At the time, the district was in greater need of a foodservice director, and administrators convinced her to take that role instead. Hill agreed, planning to stay in the position only five years. Thirty-two years later, she still is making a difference in Jackson.
Though her career didn’t keep her in the classroom, Hill has been a teacher, educating her students and staff about wellness, career advancement and more. And her positive influence has been felt not only by students, but by the community as well. Here’s how:
1. Modernizing 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. Hill used a portion of the funds (plus additional state grants) to design five new kitchens and replace equipment, some of which was 30 years old. New walk-ins, combi ovens and other items, created more efficiency for the staff, allowing them to prep food ahead of time and store it overnight. “This allowed them to really do more planning,” Hill says. “It also [gave] them more space because, in many instances, they were almost working on top of each other.”
2. Tailoring healthy offerings
Each school under Hill’s direction offers its own variety of fruits and vegetables based on students’ preferences. She encourages managers to review their sales daily to determine which produce items are most popular, increasing the likelihood that students actually will eat what they select, she says. All schools also offer a salad of the day. And Hill outfitted new and updated school kitchens with vegetable choppers, so staff can chop fruits and vegetables more quickly and neatly, improving 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 Healthier U.S. Challenge Schools.
3. Encouraging employee wellness
Every spring for the past four years, Hill’s 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.
4. Paving a path for career growth
To help cooks, managers and other foodservice workers move up the career ladder, Hill developed a districtwide management-training program. At least 50 percent of Hill’s management team are graduates of the program. In addition, all managers and area supervisors have completed Level 1 School Nutrition Association certification, providing basic education in nutrition and food safety.
5. Connecting with the community
Hill turned National School Lunch Week into a districtwide celebration, inviting community leaders to come into the schools to eat meals with students. The kids decorated classrooms, gave presentations and wrote essays with themes that connected school foodservice with the curriculum. Hill also developed a logo that is displayed on water bottles, T-shirts and hats to promote the department and emphasize the role that foodservice plays in students’ education. The food-services department also hosts a 5-K Wellness Walk in October that is open to the community. Participants gather at the district’s football field, Hughes Field, to walk the perimeter with the superintendent and sample healthy snacks. As the event has grown, vendors such as the American Heart Association have signed on to provide wellness tests.