WINDHAM – Earlier this week, Jeanne Reilly, the food services director at Windham-Raymond schools, was awarded Outstanding Director of the Year by the Maine School Nutrition Association.
Reilly was nominated by the district’s nutritionist, Stephanie Joyce, and was chosen based on five criteria, according to the state association’s executive director, Ellen Demmons. Reilly is now in the running for the national award.
“I’ve known Jeanne for many years,” Demmons said. “I’ve worked with her on many committees, and I was very pleased that she was nominated and that she won. Jeanne is an excellent example of the best in our profession.”
Demmons, a food services director for Regional School Unit 21 in the Kennebunk area, said Reilly scored well in the five categories that the award is based on: program enhancement, staff development, school involvement, association involvement, and providing nutrition-related community activities.
In her nomination application, Joyce said Reilly deserved the honor because she turned around a struggling program.
“Our director has a proven ability to manage multi-unit school nutrition programs within … state and federal guidelines while maintaining fiscal responsibility and nutritional integrity of the meal program,” Joyce wrote. “She arrived to our district … at a time when there was declining meal participation, low staff morale and financial instability… Within five years in our district she successfully increased our participation by 54 percent for breakfast, 26 percent for lunch, generated annual revenue of close to $200,000 bringing the department out of a deficit.”
Reilly was happy to receive the honor and credited her 25 staff members.
“I’m very honored, and it wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t have this wonderful staff working for me, who have a really go-to attitude,” she said. “When I say let’s try something new, they’re all over it, and so this wouldn’t have been possible without them.”
Reilly has been a food services director for about 15 years. She spent 11 years in Westbrook. About four years ago, she served as both Westbrook and Windham’s food services director. In 2011, she came on full-time in the Windham-Raymond schools.
Reilly oversees a total budget of about $1.5 million, which provides for about 2,000 lunches and 600 breakfasts each day at the six schools in the district.
Superintendent Sandy Prince praised Reilly for staying within budget while having to comply with new regulations calling for healthier food, which inherently costs more.
“It’s great news,” Prince said of Reilly’s award. “I think she’s produced an A-plus school lunch program, and she has done it in a way that’s nutritious and at the same time is in the black. And you’ll find many times a lot of these school nutrition programs are in the red.”
Prince also praised Reilly’s attempts to make school lunch new and interesting for students, whom Reilly describes as “customers.”
“I have enjoyed working with her and find she has an astonishing array of creativity,” Prince said. “It’s just unbelievable how she, every year, takes this program one step further.”
Reilly said school nutrition has changed dramatically in recent years, with an emphasis on healthy options and lower caloric intake in an effort to fight child obesity. She said the federal regulations, which are handed down by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, are in a state of major transition.
“Those guidelines are changing, so it’s been a real changeable year trying to stay up with it and keep current and keep the students interested in eating school meals and stay within budget all at the same time,” Reilly said.
The big challenge, which has been reported in the national news, is the balance between providing nutritious foods that also satisfy students’ hunger and caloric needs for after-school activities. After overhauling their programs, she said, school systems nationwide have been struggling with decreased student participation, which also weakens the bottom line. However, she said, Windham-Raymond schools aren’t seeing the decline despite their menu overhaul.
“And I think that’s a real accolade to my staff trying to work really hard to keep everything still appealing to students and tasty,” Reilly said.
Reilly said she does a lot of promotions and special meal days, including Fun Friday breakfasts and Guest Chefs events that bring professional chefs to the district. She uses scratch ingredients for quesadillas and other student favorites.
“We’re just constantly doing those types of things to keep our customers interested in always coming back,” Reilly said.