Dynamic school nutrition and marketing dietitian: Stefanie Dove, RDN, CDN
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This isn’t your mama’s school lunch
School lunch = a carb-packed, mostly white and bland meal with milk, right? Actually, not anymore, and it’s the job of School Nutrition Marketing Coordinator Stefanie Dove, RDN, CDN to change the thinking around school lunch.
“If you don’t share the wonderful things you’re doing, people won’t know how good the meals are,” Stefanie said.
Stefanie works for Loudoun County Schools in Virginia overseeing marketing efforts for the entire K-12 district, but she’s not a food service dietitian.
“It’s actually been a very humbling experience. When I walk into the kitchen I tell the staff, ‘listen you guys are far more knowledgeable in the kitchen than I ever will be, so please tell me if I’m doing something wrong!’” Stefanie said.
So if she’s not spending most of her time in the kitchen, what does Stefanie do all day working for the school nutrition program?
As the Marketing Coordinator, she’s in charge of spreading the word to parents, teachers, fellow dietitians and the general public that school lunch is not the same as it was in 1985. She makes a point to eat lunch at a school at least once per week, and while she’s there she meets with leaders, students and food service staff.
When Stefanie was in kindergarten, she dropped her school lunch tray and was reprimanded by the school lunch lady. Embarrassed, she chose to never eat school lunch again. This is a story Stefanie uses as a teaching point with the staff she visits. Even events that happen in the school cafeteria that don’t directly involve food can quickly shape a child’s feelings about eating school meals. It’s her job to educate the staff and the public about the positive things that are — and should — happen surrounding lunch at school.
Posting pictures and descriptions of food trays on the district’s social media sites, reviewing menus for allergens, reviewing menus from a color/presentation standpoint (avoiding the white-on-white-on white tray dilemma), checking out a garden with students and reviewing the School Nutrition Association’s guidelines are also part of a day’s work for Stefanie.
Why school nutrition
Stefanie completed a thorough clinical internship where she was seeing patients on her own within a few weeks, much earlier than her peers. However, she knew she never wanted to work in the clinical setting. When she hit her school nutrition rotation, she was able to do marketing and promotion, and that’s when it clicked for her.
“I love working with the kids because you can really see the changes. I don’t think there’s anything better than seeing a child try spinach for the first time, and they’re really excited about it!” she said.
You may be thinking Stefanie is an exception, or that she works in a privileged school district, but actually, what’s happening at Loudoun County Schools is also happening nationwide. Because of strict USDA guidelines, many districts use the same products. Stefanie also relies on guidance from the School Nutrition Association, which is the national organization of school nutrition professionals.
“The food that comes in student’s packed lunches wouldn’t even meet the USDA requirements,” Stefanie said. For example, every grain served has to be whole-grain rich.
Stefanie’s position as School Nutrition Marketing Coordinator is unique and she’s the first to hold the title in Loudoun County. Her advice to dietitians who may be considering a career in marketing or school nutrition: Go visit a school, and go in with an open mind.
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Bonus section: In her own words
Stefanie answers a few questions in writing about her experience working as a school nutrition dietitian.
How did you get into school nutrition?
I got into school nutrition out of pure coincidence. I never viewed this field as one I wanted to venture into as I did not want to be a food service dietitian as I had always known I wanted an out-of-the-box career in dietetics that allowed me to utilize marketing, social media, and my passion for nutrition education. It was not until I was completing my food service rotation during my internship where the director had me plan the marketing and promotions around National School Breakfast Week and a school garden opening that I realized there were so many opportunities in school nutrition. My position as Marketing Coordinator was the first of its kind in school nutrition and my district, so I knew that when this position become available, I had to apply for it.
What are some of your main goals and duties?
I oversee all of the marketing and communications for the program from managing social media and filming videos to developing promotions for the district (89 schools, 82,000 students) or individual schools, managing the farm to school and school garden programs, working with teachers to incorporate nutrition into their daily lessons, and I also speak at conferences on the local, state and national levels to discuss unique opportunities in nutrition as well as work with district to help them implement marketing strategies into their programs. I develop our gluten free menu and work with the students and parents who need help menu planning and managing their food allergies. I work with high school graphic design students to develop our harvest of the month posters where I teach them the importance of marketing campaigns, deadlines and we review marketing calendars and due date calendars. I also organize teacher training days to provide teachers with hands-on opportunities to empower them to utilize nutrition education and school gardens in the classroom.
What is the best part of working in school nutrition?
Being able to transform the way children view the food they eat. With childhood obesity on the rise, school nutrition professionals are in the unique opportunity to help educate and promote fruits and vegetables to students since they are a daily requirement for the meal pattern. I love working with students in their school gardens so that they can plant the seeds for the items they want to grow, take care of them and then harvest them. After we harvest, I work with them to have taste tests so they can try the foods they eat. Parents do not believe me when I tell them that I had an entire class of 1st graders eating kale and asking for seconds and thirds. We had farmer trading cards developed through a community partnership and I was able to arrange for our farmers to come into schools to sign their cards. It was wonderful to see farmers treated as celebrities and to hear the students squeal from excitement when they met them.
What are some challenges?
The biggest challenge is to dispel the myth of what is actually served in school nutrition programs. There are strict regulations put into place by the USDA, so the meals served today across the country are not the same as they were 5, 10, or 15+ years ago. Many are quick to judge school meals, but have not stepped foot into a school cafeteria since they were a student. Things have changed and school nutrition professionals spend countless hours devoted to providing nutritious meals that are also palatable to a large population of students. I always tell our parents that we plan a menu and have to think about what would appeal to 82,000 students. Often, parents have a difficult time getting their children to agree one a dinner, so just imagine the challenge it is for districts to come up with the best menu. I encourage all dietitians to take some time to schedule a meeting with the school nutrition director in their district so they can not only understand more about the program, but also see what is going on. Dayle Hayes, is one of my greatest mentors and has been a true champion for school nutrition programs. If a RDN is not following her on social media, they should! You can find her at @SchoolMealsThatRock.
What is something you get to do as a school nutrition dietitian that you wouldn’t get to do in other areas of nutrition?
My position is very unique and I am fortunate to have a variety of tasks. It is not everyday that you can say you spend your early morning tweeting, mid-morning in the garden with students, the afternoon enjoying lunch at one of your schools and you spend the afternoon working on a new promotion to celebrate Dr. Seuss’ Birthday. Working in school nutrition allows you to have a unique interaction with students while also being vital to public policy and community programs. I enjoy working with a variety of individuals on a regular basis. School Nutrition is also a community. Unlike other industries, school nutrition is all about sharing. There is no competition and all school nutrition employees want to share the success of other districts because their success is our success and one more step in transforming the way others view this field.
What is a unique task, skill or piece of equipment you use to contribute to the health/care of students?
The unique skill I use to contribute to the health of our students is the ability to actively listen. Our students know that when I am talking to them and ask for their feedback, I will follow up with them. If you show students, especially teens, that their opinions are important and valued, they will be more likely to provide you with honest answers.
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