How to Connect with Your District - Even If It's 200,000 Students Large
For this month’s Spotlight Member, we decided to step aside and let Shaun Sawko do the talking. Shaun took the time to personally give us a view into his district and the amazing ways they are bringing students and faculty around the cafeteria table.
“My name is Shaun Sawko and I am a registered dietitian for Hillsborough County Student Nutrition Services. Hillsborough has 200,000 students and almost 240 schools.
With a district this large, we are constantly trying to think of ways that we can better our program and seek out avenues to do so. These efforts include cooking demonstrations, Try-It-Tuesdays, and our annual food show where we test new products for around 200 students. The more we involve our students in our decision making process, the more participation we see.
For key stakeholders in the district, like school board members, we have a new event called “The Student Nutrition Experience.” We set up tables that feature what we do, what we serve, and why we serve it. We use this event to show them this is not your old square pizza anymore. If you have the buy-in from your stakeholders, it makes your job so much easier when you are trying to make larger scale change.
We are constantly trying to bring new concepts and ideas to our school. No matter what the avenue is with these events, the result is the same – helping us to create a menu that is focused on student-approved items.
1. Shaun, can you first introduce yourself? We would love to hear about you, your role at Hillsborough County School District, and your career path.
My name is Shaun Sawko. I am a registered dietitian for Hillsborough County Student Nutrition Services. I have been a dietitian for almost two years now. I completed my undergrad at UNF in Jacksonville, FL and began working at WIC in Tampa, FL after an unsuccessful match during my senior year of college. After two years at WIC, I decided to try again to match an internship and ultimately decided to apply to a distance dietetic internship since I had been able to network and make connections with dietitians in the area. I applied and was accepted into BGSU’s coordinated dietetic internship and master’s program. I began my rotations the following year. I had always thought I wanted to do clinical and become a CDE because diabetes has always interested me, but it was not until my rotation with Hillsborough County Student Nutrition that I found my real passion. I split my food service rotation into two sections, School Nutrition and Hospital Food Service, to give myself more diversity and better understanding of both. I did my School Nutrition rotation first and loved it so much that I ended my Hospital Food Service rotation a week early so I could come back to the schools. After my internship, Student Nutrition Services hired me on in a temporary position while they worked to create my current position. One thing that is great is that with my current position being brand new, I have a say in shaping it in the direction with what I want. My title is Nutrition Coordinator and my director has made it clear that my focus should be on all aspects of Nutrition Education and I could not be happier.
2. Share a little background info on your district.
Hillsborough County is the eighth largest county in the nation. We have around 200,000 students with almost 240 schools. We are an estimated $150 million operation with a variety of programs from free universal breakfast, to lunch, to super snack/supper, to 39 FFVP sites, to 53 Breakfast in the Classroom sites, and more. We are constantly trying to think of ways that we can better our program and seek out avenues to do so.
3. What types of activities is your district doing to involve students? How do these activities impact your program?
We have a bunch of activities in obtaining feedback from our students. These efforts include: one time product testing with our students, cooking demonstrations where we test concepts, our annual food show where we test new products in different concepts for around 200 students, or Try-It-Tuesdays where students can test a few concepts that we would like to see for potential side items. No matter what the avenue is with these events, the result is the same – helping us to create a menu that is focused on student-approved items. The more we involve our students in our decision making process, the more participation during our meals we will be able to see.
4. Tell us a little about the food show that you host. How does this help your menu and participation? How do you collect data? How many people are involved in the food show?
Our food show is with 200 students broken into two days, with one day being elementary and the other being secondary. We originally had both groups on one day, but we thought that the elementary students could feel intimidated to be next to much older students. We have our vendors submit not just their new products, but concepts behind the new products. It’s great to have the food show ran this way because we are able to utilize the vendor’s concepts in our menus, if they are successful. It not only allows us to test new concepts to our students, but provides us with ideas and directions on what the students would like to see. We are able to create online surveys that ask a variety of questions to the students to gage how successful the dishes would be if implemented in the district.
5. How do you build a relationship with your school board and faculty? How does your department's relationship with the school board/faculty impact your program and participation?
We try to market to our stakeholders on a normal basis. If you have the buy-in from your stakeholders, it makes your job so much easier when you are trying to make larger scale change. We just started a new event called “The Student Nutrition Experience”. We set up tables that featured our dishes and education behind who we are, what we do, what we serve, why we serve it, and why what we do is so important. Unfortunately in this industry there are a lot of misguided ideas of what school nutrition is, so a lot of what we try to do at the district level is all about changing perception. This is not your old square pizza anymore and we try to educate as many people as we can about it.
6. Have you seen a shift in food trends at all this year? Any new products for your Try it Tuesdays? How do you get your kids to eat more fruits and vegetables?
Our district chef is always trying to be on the cutting edge of what our students want. One thing that helps with that is that he has two elementary aged children who are very vocal about what they like and do not like. The chef is not afraid to admit that he steals ideas and concepts from restaurants around town. Sometimes our recipe and concept ideas come out of necessity. We had an abundance of peas and carrots, which we were able to combine a few more ingredients and create a chicken pot pie recipe. This year we have an abundance of peppers and onions, so we came up with the concept of Ropa Vieja and Philly cheesesteaks.
7. Any big NSLW events coming up at Hillsborough?
I actually just got back from a cooking demonstration and nutrition presentation at one of our middle schools. We have them planned all week throughout our district. I am observing one tomorrow and performing another one Thursday.
8. What are your goals for this year? Any new ideas or concepts that you are bringing to the schools?
Goals? To get through the school year, haha. We are constantly trying to bring new concepts and ideas to our school. The most exciting project we are currently working on is a partnership with a local non-profit that does health education. I worked with their team to tweak their nutrition education lesson to focus on connecting their lessons back to our cafeteria and am quite pleased with the result. We have created a contract with them to provide the lesson to 320 different classes at 80 different schools.