Investing in Future School Food Leaders

This June, FoodCorps brought together 20 aspiring school food service leaders in New London, CT to help them explore the landscape of careers in school food, build their network with like-minded individuals, and get some hands-on experience living the daily realities of working in school food. They traveled from all over the country to learn from leaders in the field from all over the east coast. Vanika Jethwa CT ’17, an alum who joined us from Keene, NH shares reflections on her experience at the training. 

I grew up loving food—eating it, cooking it and talking about it all the time. So it came as  no surprise to family and friends when back in high school, I decided I wanted to be a Registered Dietitian. The seven years following that decision haven’t been easy, but life has a way of constantly reminding me why I am pursuing this particular path.

I had planned to begin a dietetic internship after graduating from UCONN in 2016, but my application was denied. That’s when I discovered  the perfect way to combine my love for food with helping others: serving for a year with FoodCorps. I was placed in a small Connecticut school district where I worked hand in hand with the food service director and interacted with food service staff on a daily basis. I loved it. There were so many opportunities for growth and change, and I made meaningful connections with individuals both at my service site and across the state I hadn’t seriously considered school food as a career, but after a year of exploring what that might look like, I decided it was the right place for me.

The School Food Leadership Training demonstrated that sometimes our most valuable resources are right next to (or inside) us.

When my service term concluded, I reapplied for a dietetic internship and my experience with FoodCorps proved invaluable as an applicant. I was accepted and started the program in August 2017. My internship allowed me to explore the many pathways I could follow within the dietetics field, which started to blur my understanding of what option made the most sense for me. Serendipitously, I then received an email from FoodCorps offering a training opportunity for school food leadership. I jumped at the chance to delve deeper into the realm of school food and to hopefully gain some clarity on how to use my skills as a future registered dietitian to help facilitate change in the school food community.

Interestingly enough, I didn’t walk away with a defined sense of purpose or a set direction in which to take my career. Instead, I walked away with something better: the tools to navigate along this journey myself, and an expanded network of people willing and eager to support me along the way.

Learnings from our first session, run by FoodCorps’ very own Jim Laden, really resonated with me. We discussed the often misinterpreted concepts of talents vs. strengths: a talent is something you are born with, and a strength is something you invest in developing over time. It is a simple concept, yet one I hadn’t taken much time to think about. Having always been told to focus on improving or overcoming my weaknesses, investing in my strengths seemed foreign. I came to understand the importance of recognizing strengths and talents instead of fixating on weaknesses, not only in myself but also within others, and building on those strengths to forge connections and grow the expanding network of school food.

When I think of “networking,” I tend to look up the chain and narrow in on learning from those who I believe have more experience than me or who hold  higher roles. The School Food Leadership Training demonstrated that sometimes our most valuable resources are right next to (or inside) us. I gained perspective from talking to current service members and alums and learning from them about everything from strategies for success in schools to ways to be involved through policy and advocacy.  

One of the speakers over the weekend said, “My students aren’t going to come to your school just because the food is better.” This served as a reminder that there is no reason for schools to be in competition with one another; we are all working towards the same goal: providing safe, inclusive, healthy spaces for children to eat, learn, and grow. Participating in the greater conversation, sharing ideas, and offering advice and help are critical in this field of work. Spending a weekend with like-minded people who are driven to foster change was inspiring and humbling, and I look forward to continuing to build upon the connections I made and celebrating future successes with this group of school food leaders.