State Agency Perspectives

In “Relax! There’s Nothing to Fear,” published in the May 2016 issue of School Nutrition, author Penny McLaren asked state agency directors for their best advice to school nutrition directors preparing the Administrative Review. This periodic evaluation isn’t the only thing that has changed in the relationship between state agencies and the local school food authorities (SFAs) they work with. McLaren asked two veteran state agency directors and a (relative) novice to share reflections and perspectives.

Dr. Colleen Asumendi Fillmore, PhD, RD, LD, SNS
Director, CNP Programs
Idaho Department of Education
Colleen Fillmore has been director of the child nutrition programs in Idaho for 13 years, and has logged 20 years in the department, so she admits she has seen a lot of change over that time. “It has gotten crazy busy,” she asserts. “We have always been busy, but with all the regulatory changes, it has been more so.” This is because, of course, as the federal program changes, the state agency is responsible to oversee those changes, which have been almost continual in recent years, as the requirements of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 continue to be rolled out.

Other changes Fillmore cites includes the public visibility of child nutrition programs, as well as the application of technology on both sides of the partnership. One thing that has gotten decidedly better, according to Fillmore, is the state-school relationship. “It is very strong,” she says. When she worked in operations in Iowa and Nebraska, she had a good connection with the respective state agencies, “But in Idaho, our partnerships are especially strong. We have to be approachable, given all the regulatory changes and the importance of helping SFAs understand those changes.”

An example of how that partnership manifests itself is found at the Idaho School Nutrition Association. Three members of the state agency staff serve on this state affiliate’s board of directors. This helps to ensure that “communication back and forth is very strong,” Fillmore notes. “It is one of the things we are most proud of. The door is always open for anyone to ask questions.”

Fillmore recalls her early years as state agency director. “When I first took over the department, I did not have the opportunity to learn from my predecessor,” she recounts, “but I had a great staff to work with, so that helped me through.” However, she advises new directors to connect with other state directors like her for direction and information. “Try to find others who can help you,” Fillmore recommends. In fact, she’s walking the talk: “Staff from another state will be shadowing us, because they heard that Idaho has a good program,” she reveals.

Sandra Kangas
Office Administrator, Child& Adult Nutrition Services
South Dakota Department of Education
Sandra Kangas also has witnessed considerable change throughout her years as the state agency director in South Dakota. “Changes in the administration at the national level—and with reauthorization—means that the direction for state agency staff also changes,” she reports.

“Sometimes the hat we wear is more white and helpful, and sometimes it is more black, because we are dealing more intensively with monitoring and fiscal action,” Kangas says candidly. “At this point we are dealing with many details at both the local and state level. It has become very complex. When there are so many details, it seems there is less local control of program operation and more time spent on paperwork than on nutrition.” She laments the fact that the increase in monitoring requirements decreases the time available for training, technical assistance, and developing innovative solutions to provide healthy meals to children.

But, Kangas continues, “The part that has not changed—and this is the best part—is the enthusiasm of local staff and their caring for students in the schools. It doesn’t matter if they are in the smallest or the largest school, most are there for the kids, and they try their best to provide a smile along with the healthy meals prepared and served in compliance with the requirements.”

If Kangas were to summarize her perspectives as an illustration—“If I could draw cartoons”—then it would be “a picture of children standing in line waiting for their meal while the foodservice staff are filling out records on paper or computers.” The same is true in her own office. “Sometimes we at the state agency feel the same way—people are waiting for answers to questions, while we are busy filling out reports.

Like Fillmore, Kangas sees value in strong partnerships with districts and hopes that will prevail over attitudes of suspicion and fear. “Although state agency personnel try to be proactive and helpful, the very detailed look at every facet of the foodservice operation sometimes makes local agency personnel view state agency staff more negatively. When we get past that fear, there is a good partnership to overcome the perceived barriers.” And when that happens, she notes, the state agency can focus on its primary role: “That of an information source providing training, technical assistance and interpretation of rules and policies.”

Robert Leshin, MPA
Acting Director, Office for Food and Nutrition Programs
Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education
Robert Leshin began working for the Massachusetts Office for Food and Nutrition Programs in 2008 as a supervisor in financial management. In 2012, he began overseeing program reviews in a new role as assistant director, and it was during this period that the new Administrative Review process was put into place.

“I have an interesting perspective,” he says, referring to the Administrative Review. “I had a fresh look from the start,” he explains, noting that he was not involve with the old CRE process.  

When long-time state agency director Katie Millett retired last year, Leshin was named Acting Director. Millett had served as director for 19 years and was with the department more than 30 years. In the years they overlapped, “I tried to soak up as much knowledge from her as possible,” says Leshin, crediting his predecessor with leaving a strong department—one that he plans to sustain that. “I will continue to keep that momentum going,” he asserts. “I have a different style, but while I might do things differently, I will make sure it is seamless.”

The state has 480 SFAs, he reports, and Leshin is aware that they all knew Katie and respected her. “I assured them we are going in the same positive direction,” he says. “But this does give me an opportunity to take a fresh look at things. I know from a management perspective that you shouldn’t throw too much change at staff, so I will keep things going and tweak things as we go along.” He recognizes that the changes of a new supervisor are always unsettling for staff, and doubts and anxiety can creep in, but he will work to allay fears.

“We are still a leader for the child nutrition programs,” he affirms. “Even though I am acting director right now, I am dedicated to keeping the activities afloat and charge forward. We can assure people that we have a strong standing in the state and the nation for a reason. Ultimately, it is [because of] the school districts and what they are doing that make it a success.” 

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