As chief operations officer at Saint Paul Public Schools in Minnesota, Jean Ronnei is responsible for overseeing transportation, facilities, technology, nutrition services and more. At the helm of the School Nutrition Association for the 2015–2016 school year, that do-it-all perspective should be an advantage. FoodService Director spoke with Ronnei about the challenges operators face and how she hopes to help in her new role as president.
Q: Prior to your role as COO, you were known as an FSD skilled at making connections to bring about new ideas. What connections do you hope to foster as SNA president?
A: I see great opportunities to partner with others around professional standards, being able to deliver training and looking for ways to get resources for our schools to have equipment that they need. That’s clearly a place that we need additional help. We have a School Nutrition Foundation and that is a great place for us to spend some time focusing.
Q: What keeps you up at night?
A: Speaking from a lens of [my experience in] Saint Paul Schools, I think what keeps me up a little bit at night is being able to maintain participation. Saint Paul certainly saw a reduction in participation over the last couple of years and has struggled financially. So, we’re not able to purchase the equipment that we were once able to purchase, and it’s just getting more challenging. We used to really pride ourselves on being able to offer a wide variety of fruits and vegetables; unfortunately we end up limiting that, to offering less expensive fruits and vegetables. [It’s] the challenges our districts are facing due, in part, to many factors that are causing us financial hardship.
Q: So many operators personally want to do right by their students, but how do you reconcile that when you’re also trying to operate a business, trying to do it with limited resources, trying to fight for fewer nutrition regulations?
A: I certainly want the best for our kids. I believe others do, too. There are resource issues and systems issues that keep things complicated. So as president … I certainly can say what I was able to do in Saint Paul but put me in another district someplace else, I would have struggles potentially there, and we’re having struggles now. So that one size fits all is a tough place to put [operators].
Q: What plans do you have to make professional education more accessible to members?
A: We’ve also made some changes with the structure [of the association], and we are providing more state support from the national level. What we’re seeing are tools and resources that are going to our states to help them because more on-the-ground, more in-the-backyard services are really coming to be of value to our members.
Q: What could you do during your tenure to strengthen the association’s relationship with operators and get them more engaged?
A: The more we listen, the more we reach out and find out what the members need and want, our connection will grow stronger. It’s all about listening.