The Dr. Josephine Martin Endowment Fund was developed in an effort to help school nutrition professionals pursue their goals in the public policy arena. Each year, the School Nutrition Foundation selects a National Policy Fellow and provides funds to send an SNA member to attend the Legislative Action Conference (LAC) in Washington, D.C. for the first time. This year our Josephine Martin National Policy Fellow is Ashley Whitener, School Nutrition Program Manager for the Richmond County Technical Career Magnate School in Georgia. We recently sat down with Ashley to talk about her job, her award, and her passion for school nutrition.
School Nutrition Foundation: Ashley, tell us how you got started in the school nutrition field.
Ashley Whitener: I started in school nutrition in 2009. I was a stay-at-home mom, about 23 years old, and I was an accounting student. I started to realize accounting wasn’t for me. My mother-in-law worked in school nutrition as a manager, and she knew of someone who had an opening, so I started out as a substitute and was hired at that same school about two months later. It snowballed from there! Five schools later, here I am!
SNF: Tell us how you got involved with the School Nutrition Association.
AW: When I started in Richmond County our [then] director, Josephine Mack, strongly encouraged all managers to be SNA members—to be active SNA members. My manager encouraged me to join, and I recall at the time they had some kind of special—a two-for-one or something like that!—and I joined that year, and have kept up every year, becoming a manager myself in 2012.
SNF: How did you come to apply for the scholarship? What prompted you to “go for it”?
AW: I had seen it on the website, and thought about attending but I didn’t think about applying; I didn’t feel strong enough in the legislative topics. I’ve been doing more work with [SNA]—I’m going to be the legislative chair for our county this year, and last year as [Richmond County SNA] president I went to our GSNA and LAC conferences. I met the governor, and got to go to the different representatives’ offices. One of the nutrition education specialists in Richmond County encouraged me to give it a shot and apply, and I did!
The decision to apply was, again, something I thought about for some time. I don’t know if ‘brave’ is the right word—I had to work up the nerve to apply. It’s pretty daunting when you think that this is open to everyone. “They’ll never pick me!” I thought. I had the support from my central office staff. Once I got to the actual application process I think for me the hardest part was that I had 500 words to describe the topics, but how do you stop at 500 words? There are so many things on this important topic that you want to speak to. The application process was easy itself, doing everything online. I took the topics, read over them, made notes here and there, and constructed what I wanted to say and narrowed it down to the important parts.
SNF: What are you most looking forward to during your trip to Washington, D.C. for LAC 2016?
AW: Just the whole experience. I’ve heard it’s one of the best conferences SNA offers. I’m also excited about the upcoming year as legislative chair in my county. I think LAC will give me the experience, the building blocks, to grow. I traveled a lot growing up, but Washington, D.C. is one place I haven’t been so that makes it even more exciting—something I’ve never done in a place I’ve never been!
SNF: What does it mean to you to win this award? How did you feel when you found out you’d been named the 2016 Josephine Martin Fellow?
AW: It’s just a huge honor and I’m so grateful. I was in Leadership Academy with Georgia SNA, and Dr. Martin came in with Mary Nix and sat in on one of our sessions. It was a joy to get to meet with her—with both of them. Dr. Martin is amazing; she’s quite the pioneer. I posted some pictures on social media and my friends outside school nutrition could tell she was important but didn’t know who she was, but how do you put into words how important she is? She’s a celebrity in the school nutrition field, and anyone passionate about this line of work would be excited to have met Dr. Martin.
SNF: What are your goals going into LAC 2016?
AW: I want to soak up as much experience as possible from the seasoned members I’ll be with in Washington, and bring it back with me to my district. At other conferences people say, If you’re not telling your own story, someone else will tell it. If you don’t represent yourself, people will make decisions for you without all of the information, and that goes for advocacy, too—if we don’t stand up and say what we stand for, and what we need, then decisions will be made on our behalf that won’t benefit us the way we need them to. Going to [LAC] will help me build on things I can bring home to encourage others.
SNF: Thanks for sharing your story with us today, Ashley, and have a great time in Washington, D.C.! Is there anything else you’d like to share with other members about the scholarship, or your journey to LAC?
AW: Just that this is a job that is valuable. I can’t stress that enough. What we do with school nutrition—whether you’re the sub that just started, or Dr. Martin herself–there is value and merit in what we do. I have a passion for what we do, but I truly believe there is a need—the children need this. It’s a valuable part of education—the kids need these breakfasts, they need these lunches, so that children can succeed in the classroom. I don’t think you can stress enough just how valuable school nutrition really is.