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How I Lead: These Detroit school nutrition leaders are passionate about getting kids fed

School board members and administrators in the Detroit school district take a photo during a school board meeting with two employees who won top honors in a statewide recognition program.
Members of the Detroit school district board and administration recognize state honors for Carl Williams, second from right, and Skyla Butts, fourth from right, during a November school board meeting.
Courtesy of Detroit Public Schools Community District

Carl Williams and Skyla Butts aren’t just leaders in the office of school nutrition in the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Sometimes, they are also cooks. Or servers. And when the team needs an extra dose of encouragement, they’re also motivators.

Williams is the executive director of the school nutrition office. Butts is the communications and marketing manager. Recently, they were honored by the School Nutrition Association of Michigan as director of the year and manager of the year, respectively.

It’s been a tough year for school employees tasked with ensuring students get the healthy meals they need. Initiatives aimed at increasing lunch participation and putting chefs in schools to teach students about healthy eating have been stalled. Staffing and supply shortages caused by the pandemic have created immense challenges. Sometimes, it means people in administrative roles must lend a hand.

“Everyone in the central office is out in the field, hands on,” Williams said. “I spent several weeks cooking, cleaning, and serving food in the kitchen, because we were so short-staffed.”

These two, however, are part of a team that has been relentless in making sure students have a quality dining experience. The district recently was featured in a No Kid Hungry video for its efforts during the pandemic to get meals to students, especially those who are medically fragile. In the video, Williams says food service employees were essential before the term “essential workers” was coined to refer to workers whose jobs were vital during the pandemic.

“The pandemic changed how we did things, but it didn’t change what we did,” Williams said.

“When this pandemic happened, it was like, ‘OK, we’ve been doing this, this [has been] a dress rehearsal. We know what to do,” Butts said.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What have been the biggest challenges you’ve encountered since the pandemic began, and how are you combating them?

Williams: Our challenges have been in three categories: staffing, logistics or procurement of items … and perception of the program. With staffing, when the pandemic came, we lost some employees who chose to retire and not return. So a third of my staffing is vacant.. We were trying to maintain our standards, meaning, variety of food, variety of options on a daily basis, maintaining the quality of food, maintaining the safety of our food and operations with less employees. {During the pandemic and to this day,} we greatly increased our communication, how we communicate, and how often we communicate. We had the leadership team communicate every day at 2:30 p.m.on a call. It lasts about an hour and a half. We talk about the issues of the day, strategize about tomorrow. As we’re short staffed, our manufacturers are short as well. So the challenge of getting enough of the same products to keep the menu consistent throughout the district is relatively impossible. You may have some schools serving barbecued chicken today, and another school serving pizza, and a third set of schools serving chicken nuggets. Manufacturers that have a COVID outbreak are sometimes unable to deliver because they have no delivery drivers to work that day. So we’re missing delivery day. And we’re finding ourselves driving out to our supplier to pick up our own food.

Carl Williams is the executive director of the school nutrition office for the Detroit Public Schools Community District.
Photo courtesy the Detroit Public Schools Community District

During the pandemic, a lot of students were at home and they went back to eating a lot of unhealthy food. We had been making some very good progress with the reducing the sodium and controlling the calorie intake and removing high-fructose corn syrup and all the harmful seven ingredients from the food. We’re proud to be a district {where} 95% of our product does not have the harmful 7. Unfortunately those are the items in the food that tastes really good.

So for a whole year students were eating all that high-fructose corn syrup food and all this McDonald’s burgers that got all this crap in it and now they back to eating our food and their taste buds have changed a little bit so now we got to get their taste buds back to being used to eating healthier, more nutritious food.

What motivated the district to make this big push toward more healthy products?

Butts: The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was the push we needed to go in a direction that was healthier, had less processed foods, more whole foods. With [the Detroit school district] having a two-acre farm and 84 school gardens, that was right up our alley.

Williams: Also … when you’re fueling your body with food that’s good for your body it helps combat a lot of our social diseases that we have — diabetes and obesity. Also, I was at a conference, and I listened to a professor show how your brain reacts to certain nutrients, when you eat it for breakfast in the morning, and how it fires certain areas in the brain for learning. There’s so much data that when your body is fueled properly it eliminates absenteeism because you’re sick less often (and) able to concentrate when you’re in school.

How has the pandemic affected some of the district’s efforts to improve school nutrition programs?

Head shot of Skyla Butts, manager in the school nutrition office for the Detroit Public Schools Community District.
Skyla Butts is the communications and marketing manager in the school nutrition office for the Detroit Public Schools Community District.
Photo courtesy the Detroit Public Schools Community District

Butts: I have this board … that I keep all my tasks on. And a lot of it has the word “paused” next to it because of the marketing initiatives that we were rolling out or were doing very well, and then COVID hit. I had been on this bandwagon — I needed to have food trucks in the district. We were asked to put together a proposal and do a write-up on why we should have them. And then the board voted on it and voted for two. And then we were all set, and doing some of our soft openings. Then, of course, you know what happened in March of 2020. So we had these two beautiful food trucks just sitting. We’ve had opportunities here and there to take them out to different schools. But we’ve never had the opportunity to use them as intended. We wanted to bring these vehicles into the schools, we wanted to offer additional lunch items that aren’t on the current lunch menu to excite the students, get them excited about lunch again, and increase our lunch participation.

How have you kept staff motivated through a difficult time?

Butts: We know that this pandemic has hit our staff, hit our team so hard. We know we have to keep motivating our staff. We acknowledge them when we go to the schools and we say, hey, I’m just dropping by and just want to say, ‘You’re doing a great job.’ We have great partnerships with some organizations, some industries, who’ve given us some gift cards that we were able to go to our staff and say, you know, “I see you, I see what you’re doing, I know that you’re putting in that extra, you know, oomph.”

The pandemic helped a lot of people see how hard school nutrition employees had to work to ensure students received their meals. What was that time like for the department?

Williams: Honestly, food service workers are used to dealing with challenges and working in that manner and putting out fires every single day. That’s kind of what we do as an industry. We’ve got to be ready to feed [students], no matter who called off for the day, or what food shortage we got because at one o’clock, the doors got to open and we got to feed kids. So when all of this happened and it just got a lot worse and our staffing got shorted, nobody whined. We just went to work.

Butts: It’s just what we do. If a kid needs to be fed, we’re going to do what we need to do to get them fed.

You both received big honors recently from the state nutrition association. What does it mean to be recognized by your peers?

Williams: I was very happy that individuals see what we’re doing here is making a difference. And I’m very humbled and thankful. But internally, I gotta be honest, what I see is, how much more I have to do, and tomorrow, what I want to accomplish. I’m just focused on that.

Butts: We’re the type of people that are more comfortable behind the scenes. We are so team focused within our department, and I know that there are plenty of managers who do just as good or a better job in their roles. I look at it like this: I was selected to represent us as a team because nothing — and I mean nothing — that I do is singular. We need each other to make it happen.

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