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School Nutrition Changes Lives

Last fall, we had the opportunity to spend some time in Augusta, GA training School Nutrition professionals.  There we met Rita McDonald, a dynamic foodservice manager. Her story inspired us and we think it will inspire you as well!

I came to the United States from Pisa, Italy in 1976. After traveling here and there with my military husband, we finally settled down in Augusta, Georgia in 1984. I did not speak any English, did not drive a car, and had 2 small children. In 1986 my smallest child was starting kindergarten and some one helped me apply for a job in the  school cafeteria so I could be home when my children were home. I was hired first as a part-timer then permanent. For ten years I worked my hardest, trying to follow directions and go home felling good about my service. I always had very low self esteem, and did not believe I could really make a difference in anything, partially because of my language barrier but mostly because I only have a fifth grade level in education which made me feel inferior. However, in these ten years I did manage to get my GED and my USA citizenship.

One day in 1993 a manager position at one of the elementary schools in Columbia County became vacant. Without asking me, my manager put my application in for that position. I had no experience in managing, computers, or cash registers, I was just a cook. When I was called by the principal of that school for an interview I was asked, “Tell me why I should give it to you and not to some one else.” My answer was, “Oh please give it to them, I did not ask for this position, I do not know anything about managing, I am not qualified for this, so please choose some who would do a good job for you.”

And with that I left the his office and went back to my school. Four days later I received a letter saying …

ritaMrs. McDonald, I want to inform you that I have chosen you to be my new school nutrition manager, I congratulate you and looking forward to see you this coming Monday.Sincerely, 
Dr. O’Neill
My first thought was, the man is crazy! Then my second thought was Oh my goodness, now what am I going to do? I went through many struggles, tears and mistakes, with the help of my director and other manager, I did the best I could and now 19 years later I am still a school nutrition manager.

My biggest wake-up about the profession I was in, and the importance that it had on the life of so many children, came about 10 years ago when my director asked me to go to a Georgia School Nutrition Association (GSNA) conference. I did not know anything about GSNA or SNA but I went to the conference. I was amazed by all the wonderful workshops and assemblies. I was learning that some children really need us to provide them with good healthy meals each day because it might be the only meal they receive that day. I had never thought about that. I learned new ways to decorate the serving line to make it welcoming to the children, how to garnish the food to make it more appealing for the children to eat, and how to be friendly and give them a smile each day, because my smile may be the only smile they get in school. I was so excited because even someone (like me) could easily do those things.

I was excited to go back with wonderful ideas and utilize them. Then I heard of classes and meetings available to us if we were GSNA and SNA members (which I was not) and I found myself wondering, what are those? I’ve never heard about those before!

On Saturday there was time for awards. So many counties were getting awards for things that our county was also doing but no one was recording nor summiting anything. This is when I learned that memberships to SNA were available that only costed $38.00 per person. I was very embarrassed that my county was not mentioned for any of the good things that I knew we were doing so I kept asking myself, how can we fix that?

I went back, talked to my director and I became the local School Nutrition Association president. It was great but I found myself asking, ‘now what’? First of all I needed some members but the people could not pay for their membership. So, I went to the superintendent and asked him if he could talk to all the principals and encourage them to pay for their staff’s membership. I promised him that if they did that next year our county would be recognized at the state conference.  He did and by that December we had a 100% GSNA and SNA memberships paid for. After that I start going to a lot of the GSNA conferences and workshops. GSNA gave me so much: self esteem, the support and help that I needed to carry on the challenges given to us in the plan of action, the passion to serve our children with love and pride, to represent my school, my county and my profession with pride and professionalism. Believe it or not, I went each year to the principal’s conference to talk to them about our goals for that year and our need for their support. I even wrote articles for the county news papers and had them publish some pictures of different activities done in the school cafeterias through the years.

The love for the children, the passion for my profession, the pride of working for my director and my county changed my life and gave me a boldness I did not know that a little, country Italian girl with just five years of education could have. I was able to go to LAC three times and to our state capital six times to talk to our legislators about our program. To me that is the most humbling and wonderful experience some one like me could ever have.

winterI am now in a brand new school, with a brand new staff. I have backed off some from GSNA activity because I am needed in the school but the passion will be in me for as long as they allow me to keep working. This year we learned about The OrganWise Guys and I display the Food of the Month kit posters and try to use the foods. Some of the teachers are getting the children to do research on those foods.

My point of this article is to tell everyone out there that the school nutrition business is very important. No matter what role you play, director, manager or dish washer, you can make a difference in the life of a student. And no matter who you are, you can get involved  in GSNA and let the association change your life and increase your pride for what you do as well as being a part of creating programs that will change the lives of the children.

Wow! It’s so easy for us to overlook those who work in school nutrition but we are so thankful for professionals like Rita AND organizations like Georgia School Nutrition for all the work they do to raise a healthy generation of children!  

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