After 43 years serving the students of North Carolina’s Hoke County Schools, Deborah Carpenter has a lot of expertise, strength and wisdom to offer. From debating the pros and cons of taking a new career path to trying to foster team spirit to rising up in the face of COVID-19 service complications, Carpenter shares personal experiences and valuable insights as a possible role model to peers and colleagues facing their own challenges and opportunities.
Classroom to Cafeteria
My mother always said I was a born teacher, and there’s where I started. My eight siblings were much older, so I grew up sort of as an only child, entertaining myself by teaching my doll babies on our front porch using a portable blackboard and a yardstick pointer. I went on to teach nutrition and food science at the high school level, and I never really wanted to do anything else.
One day in 1998, my boss asked me to consider a newly open position leading the district’s Child Nutrition Services department. I looked at him as though he was crazy, and told him I was happy in the classroom. He persisted. He believed it was time for me to level up and apply my skills to the school meal program. He told me it was a chance to impact all the babies I care about so deeply in Hoke County, not just the ones in my classes.
I thought and prayed about it, sought my mother’s advice and eventually decided to interview for the position. I figured, if I get it, I get it. If I don’t, then I’ll just be happy at the high school. Well, I did get it, and I’ve been here ever since.
But I am telling you the truth when I say I knew nothing about school nutrition as the new director. And despite my earlier leadership training, I wasn’t used to supervising a team of adults. About six months into the job, I told the then-new superintendent that he had to let me leave and return to teaching. I told him these people were crazy! He asked me to give him one year and to participate in a new leadership program taught at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill. After, if I still wanted to return to the classroom, he would let me go back. But I never did.
Following and Leading
First and foremost, I’m a server. Everyone who knows me knows that. I do everything I ask my people to do. If I ask them to wash dishes, then I wash dishes. If they can sweep the floor, then I sweep the floor. When I first started as director, that’s how I learned my way in this profession.
I was in cafeterias and kitchens every day. I would go in from breakfast to lunch, and do my office work after, often until evening. I bought myself uniforms and worked alongside my teams, gaining the respect of my managers. There are lots of good books, articles and training programs that have helped me through the years, but being there with my people is what taught me the most.
It’s been important for me to serve as a mentor— I’m still a teacher at heart—and one of my proudest accomplishments is the growth of Child Nutrition Area Supervisor Cheryl Cunningham. She started as a three-hour part-time employee and, with my encouragement of her skills and strengths, she has moved up and up.
That’s what I feel best about in this career— helping Cheryl and others to grow to their next level. I make them meet new people, talk to other managers, go to SNA conferences and take on responsibilities out of their comfort zone. It keeps everyone on the team motivated and valued, so they can excel.
Source of Inspiration
My mother was my greatest mentor. We were very, very close until she passed away in 2017 at age 98. She was such an inspiration, raising and encouraging her nine children to further their education, set goals and work to achieve them. I was an adult before learning that she didn’t have a high school diploma. But after I graduated from college, she went back to get that degree, go on to college and then work in social services until she was 75.
She and my dad always reassured me that I could do anything if I just put in the time and effort. She was so proud of me; I’m glad she saw many of my accomplishments before she passed.
I was at SNA’s Legislative Action Conference (LAC) last March when my superintendent called to ask if I had seen the news. There’d been a little COVID talk at LAC, but by the time I returned home, it had escalated. My mind raced with questions: What’s going to happen to my fund balance? What about my people? My babies?!
We decided we were going to feed the children no matter what, and March through June, we worked through the challenges together, along with help from Dr. Lynn Harvey and the state, plus local partners. We learned how to prep food, keep our people safe and get meals to children via bus routes and pick-up. It went well for a time.
Once the new school year began, parents had the option of in-school or virtual learning. Parents who kept children home stopped coming for meals, but in-school students, about 62% of enrollment, were getting them. Today, rising COVID numbers mean all students are learning at home. Plus, we can no longer deliver by bus for a number of food and employee safety reasons. Still, we’re working with school and community partners to implement late pickup of meal bundles. And I’m honored that school leaders have made sure that I’m at the table, valued for my expertise. My goal hasn’t changed: Make sure that children receive nutritious meals so that they can learn and accomplish their goals. That’s why I back out of my driveway every day. I’m also committed that my staff has employment in a safe environment. And, for now, I want to keep coaching my team to go to their next level so that I can go to my next level in retirement. Forty-three years is a long time!
As told to Shannon Goff, a freelance writer in Denver, N.C.
- Hometown. Raeford, North Carolina
- Education. Bachelor of Science, Family and Consumer Sciences with a Concentration in Foods and Nutrition Education, North Carolina Central University, Durham
- Title. Executive Director of Child Nutrition Services, Hoke County Schools
- Program at a Glance. 9,600 students; 15 schools; 90 child nutrition team members; $5 million budget; 100% CEP school district; NSLP; SBP, with several alternative breakfast service models before virtual school; After School Snack and Summer Food Service Programs
- SNA Leadership Highlights. SNA Membership Committee (2020- 21); SNA of North Carolina President