Interview with Amy Maclosky, Director of Arlington Public Schools Food and Nutrition Services and Founding Member of ScratchWorks
Founding member of ScratchWorks Nancy Easton and Amy Maclosky sat down to talk about the importance of scratch cooking. Nancy, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Wellness in the Schools, interviewed Amy, Director of Arlington Public Schools Food and Nutrition Services, to learn from her many experiences in the kitchen and in school food.
Nancy: Tell us a little about yourself.
Amy: I was trained in restaurant management, and also love to cook. I have been cooking since I was 4 to 5 years old with my Polish grandmother. My grandparents had a farm so we had a lot to cook with. Polish cooking is very complicated and this is where I honed my early skills. Home Ec was also my favorite subject in school.
I was working in restaurants during the nights and weekends on customer service training programs. Someone told me about a job in a school in Fairfax County that would be so much better as a parent and give me a better work/life balance. Initially, when my kids were young, it was great as I didn’t work nights. It was great to have their schedule, to be home in the afternoon, to go to their soccer games and to cook dinner (something I really cared about). School food became a really good career choice for me.
I left school food for a period of time when my kids got older and I really missed the kids at school. I was driving to work one September from my office job and I saw kids in a school playground and got teary eyed. I have been in school food ever since.
Nancy: How have your operations changed since COVID hit?
Amy: We have moved backwards and we have needed to start over again. I never would have guessed that we would be packaging pre-wrapped food. It has been a challenge.
We have embraced outdoor lunch in Arlington and that has probably been the biggest change for us. We are packing meals for students outside and the packing is challenging for the staff because it’s time consuming and expensive. Outdoor lunch is theoretically a good idea, but has been incredibly challenging.
Now that we have packed lunches for outdoor eating for one year, we will make changes to go back to a different kind of model. We eat with our eyes. They can’t see it when it is all packed. I think we need to find a middle ground.
Nancy: Do you find that things are starting to go back to “normal”? What changes do you anticipate for the upcoming 2022-2023 school year?
Amy: I’m not sure what “normal” means anymore, but we are starting to have kids come back on the line.
Regardless of what happens with waivers, we are moving in the direction of kids coming through the line to see the food and choose the food.
However, supply chain issues are still very real – paper, whole grain items, chicken, breakfast items, you name it. We don’t use a lot of pre-packaged products, but for breakfast grab and go we need it, and the supply chain has caused problems in this realm.
Staffing issues have also been a real challenge.
The fall is still unknown, we will know this week as to whether the waivers will continue and these decisions will inform the fall. For us, we will continue to try to move back to a more normal, unpacked lunch – and move away from outdoors.
Nancy: How have labor shortages and supply chain issues affected your operations?
Amy: We have had quite a few vacancies and very few applicants. To do all the packing, we feel like we need more labor. These three things come together and present a big challenge. We are begging people to come to work and that is a terrible predicament to be in.
Nancy: How have you brought scratch cooking back into your district?
Amy: As time goes by, we are trying to do more speed scratch. We made spaghetti sauce last week, in an entirely different way and I then worried about it all night. Instead of giving everyone the recipe and ingredients, we measured out a kit for each school. We gave them the seasonings, meat, and had them put it together. This was different from pre-covid because we have new staff members and wanted them to be able to be successful. Thankfully, it turned out great!
Speed scratch is easier to pack. It stays warm and is easy. Things like sandwiches and chicken nuggets get cold really fast. Additionally, we are cooking a bit more and doing more casserole items works better with our delivery model.
Nancy: How do you address local food purchasing both before the pandemic and now?
Amy: This has not really changed much for us. Our local partners have been so valuable during the supply chain issue and most of our local food is produce. They have been really consistent.
We use the USDA pilot for non-processed local food and I was able to put 200k into that program and I used all of that for local purchasing. We also used DOD fresh for domestic produce.
Nancy: Your team recently won an Outstanding Community Service Award from the city of Arlington. Congratulations! Tell us about it.
Amy: Everyone was nominated for their hard work. We served 2 million meals in one year during Covid. We felt it was important for everyone to be acknowledged for their work during this tough time of food distribution.
The first day we fed meals during covid, I brought a beach soccer canopy from when my kids played soccer. We had no idea what we were doing. We didn’t know who would come and what the regulations were. Not six feet, no masks. We came together as a group. We started making chalk marks to stay apart, then the masks came. We saw the same kids everyday, some families came and had lunch together with us. They brought a blanket and sat on the lawn. One kid brought his turtle everyday.
It was important for everyone to get the award.
It was a scary time, we leaned on each other. People were so scared; there were days when people didn’t want to come. We had small breakthroughs that helped – like figuring out to draw with chalk on the sidewalk to mark the 6 feet. It sounds so simple now, but we were charting our own territory.
Nancy: Arlington was $1.5M in debt when you came in and took charge. Did you know the challenges you faced? What steps did you take to get back on track?
Amy: I did know we were in trouble financially and that I needed to do something.
We first evaluated the program to see where we had challenges. They had started with a consulting group and picked up on that. Since then we have never been in the red, even now. We are still very mindful of those good business practices such as:
- Get inventory under control.
- Find out where the waste is.
- Find out what your customers think.
Nancy: When I interviewed you in 2019, you spoke a lot about your team and the importance of buy-in to get the change you want. Talk about how you go about building a committed team.
Amy: This was important in 2019 and is more important now. I always do the work and I lead by example. I am very hands on and I need to see what the task is before expecting others to do it. I don’t ask people to do things that I wouldn’t do. We go into the kitchens, we try it, we troubleshoot, communicate with our customers and then work as a team to get it right. It has been so important to keep this model during the pandemic. Our core team has remained intact through a really hard time.
My people really feel like a team and I know I can trust them now to do the work right without me. You know you are a good leader if all the birds are flying in the right direction without you. Sometimes we hit the electrical wires and we fall down, but we keep going. You can’t cook from scratch, you can’t do this kind of work if you don’t have teamwork. You need teamwork to keep up with the always increasing challenges of this job.