The Power of Collaboration

Orlando Griego, Director Food & Nutrition, Santa Monica-Malibu USD

School nutrition as prominently in the national spotlight as it has ever been. There are more groups participating in the conversation than ever before: school food professionals, administrators, teachers, custodians, and parents, are being joined by politicians, the media, and many health organizations. These factions must work together to ensure the health of our students today, and the long-term health of our nation as a whole. Collaboration and cooperation have never been more important; the future of our country is at stake.

Orlando Greigo, SNS, is the director of Food and Nutrition at Santa Monica-Malibu USD. Orlando recently participated in an SNF Peer2Peer Connect call, the topic of which was how to better inform stakeholders about the nutritional importance of flavored milk in students’ diets. Santa Monica-Malibu USD had a passionate debate over whether or not to serve flavored milk to students; ultimately, the flavored milk that delivers so many important nutrients to students remains on the menu at Santa Monica-Malibu USD schools.

We sat down to talk to Orlando about how he works with stakeholders when tackling tough issues surrounding school nutrition. We asked him about his strategies for coalition building, how to best work with parents, and what his vision of team building is, vis-à-vis his own staff. Many thanks to Orlando for taking the time to sit down and talk with us!

How important is coalition building for school nutrition and what strategies have you employed?

In Santa Monica-Malibu USD that has not always been the easiest thing to do. I don’t want to say that we’re such a unique district that it hasn’t been done, it’s just that it takes a lot more effort here. Our parents are very vocal, have great resources, and they are very involved in the schools. They have quite a bit of power with the board and our superintendent, so when a parent speaks a lot of people will listen to their concerns—and that isn’t a bad thing, it’s a good thing.

On the other hand, for my department [food and nutrition services] it can present a challenge. We have had success with coalition building by taking time out and listening. We have really strong listening sessions–it’s not simply giving lip service, but bringing the key stakeholders around the table and talking about what their issues are, and then educating them on what school foodservice really is.

Can you talk about the disconnect between eating at home and eating at school, and what that means when communicating with parents?

I think what parents want their children to want, their children do not want and [parents] are often surprised at that. Despite the fact that parents might not serve all the fresh fruits and vegetables at home that we do, they are often surprised that once students get to school the children aren’t immediately jumping at those fresh fruits and vegetables.

The other thing that we’ve found is that parents don’t understand the scale of school foodservice. They look around their dinner table and they see [four or five people] and it’s very easy to go out and buy free-range or organic chicken, or organic fruits and vegetables, and make a delicious meal. But it’s quite different to do that for three or four thousand students—not just cost-wise, but looking at labor. There is some disconnect there. We educate the parents on what we do, how we do it, what the cost parameters are—what the obstacles and challenges are—and they tend to walk away feeling better about, and having a better understanding of, the program.

How do you think it’s best to specifically deal with the emotional response connected to misconceptions about school foodservice?

The key for us has been that we don’t get emotional. We stay as calm as possible while we stay respectful of them, their feelings, and their opinions. The non-fat chocolate milk issue in Santa Monica-Malibu got very heated. I think it’s one of the more emotional topics that I have seen in the many years that I have been in this industry.

Many people were very upset and quite a few people were very involved on both sides. What we learned was that those people who were very emotional and who had very strong feelings [against flavored milk] were not going to change their minds. They walked away upset with the decision the board made [to keep flavored milk]; they felt that they had been treated unfairly, and that the board had made the wrong decision.

My approach [going forward was]: How do we work together on the issues that are meaningful for both of us? The parents still had their strong feelings, but we did find that we could have another dialogue with them, to work together on the things that were important to both groups.

How do you strategize on staff, working as a unit toward common goals?

There isn’t much that happens in my office that my staff is not aware of. I try to keep everyone in the loop, whether it’s the cafeteria manager, my nutrition specialist, or my secretary, so that people have the information they need. I don’t really feel that for me the top-down approach works well.

Where I have been successful has been being a more collaborative leader: bringing people around the table and sharing information. I need them to be successful to help the department be successful; it takes all of them to do it. I can’t do it by myself and they certainly can’t do it by themselves. I try to be that buffer [on hard issues] but I also try to provide the staff with information so that they can make decisions.

What have you learned from parent interactions vis-a-vis school nutrition?

Our parents are very passionate and have strong beliefs about what they would like for my department to offer and serve on a daily basis. While we respect their passion and beliefs we have found that it works best to meet with the parents and make sure they understand (1) this is a program of choice and (2), more importantly, that this is a program that has many constraints: fiscal, regulatory, personnel, etc. The dialogue that is opened by a casual inquiry or concern or suggestion allows us to share a great deal of information, which is key to making decisions and satisfying the concerns of the parent.

What can parents do to effectively communicate their concerns with school foodservice professionals?

My suggestion to parents is to be patient and to not only understand but to also respect the constraints by which we operate. Quite often, the suggestion they are making is what they want their child to want not necessarily what their child really wants; that suggestion often allows us to go into more detail about how we make decisions. We can’t do everything they ask of us, but we can often do more than they think; we welcome feedback and suggestions.

What are the top priorities for school foodservice professionals in the next 12 months?

I believe the challenge for many school foodservice professionals will be to address the demands of the new regulations, both fiscal and nutritionally. My top priorities would be to evaluate how the new regulations will affect my department while finding and introducing new items that will increase participation and satisfy a good cross section of our parents. The economy has had a huge impact on many school food service departments—this will be a major challenge for me and many of my colleagues. Finally, I believe greater effort must be made locally and nationally to improve the perception of school food service while educating parents and others about the amazing work school food service professionals are doing each school day.

About Orlando: Orlando Griego has been Director of Food and Nutrition Services for Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District for 8 years.  Orlando has 25 years experience in school food service having been the Director for San Francisco Unified and Los Angeles Unified School Districts as well as working for Houston Independent School District. You can access the Peer2Peer PowerPoint slides from his presentation on flavored milk at the School Nutrition Foundation website.

Originally from New Mexico, Orlando received his undergraduate degree from the University of Notre Dame and his MBA from the University of Houston.  He is an active member of the California School Nutrition Association and the School Nutrition Association.

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