Curious about what a career in school nutrition is like? Be Well Solutions Dietetic Internship faculty advisor, Sam Chin, MS, RDN, LD shared insight into his current role working in school nutrition. If you’re considering completing a rotation at a school nutrition site or are interested in making this your career path, you’ll want to keep on reading!
1. What is your current role?
I am the Food Service Director at Olmsted Falls City Schools in Olmsted Falls, Ohio, which is a southwest suburb of Cleveland. I have been in this role for the past 4.5 years!
2. Tell us a little about your background and your RD2Be journey.
As a Chinese-American, a lot of my culture and upbringing revolved around food, which led to me being overweight for most of my life; I took my mom’s advice to “eat more to be strong” a little bit too seriously! In high school, I began to take ownership of my health and learn more about the basics of nutrition and how to lose weight in a healthy way. In doing so, I was able to lose weight and it made me want to help others to do the same. In 2015, I graduated with a BS in Dietetics from Michigan State University, and then I completed the MS in Public Health Nutrition Dietetic Internship at Case Western Reserve University in 2017. I had my first job doing nutrition counseling at a bariatric surgery center in Cleveland for 1.5 years before moving into my current role.
3. What is a typical day like in a school nutrition role?
My day may consist of supervising breakfast and lunch service in each building, handling administrative tasks (placing orders, managing department budget, completing government forms, etc.), creating menus, and connecting with students during meal time. I also plan and cook catering events with my staff and lead the wellness program for our district. However, every day is truly different and there is a lot of spontaneous problem solving that keeps things interesting! There are days where I will have to serve food in a kitchen at the last minute due to a staff call off, go out to the store to buy ingredients because a delivery didn’t come on time, or tend to some other unforeseen circumstance that requires me to jump into action. Some days can be a little chaotic, but there are very few dull moments in the school food service world.
4. What are some of the benefits of choosing this area of nutrition and dietetics?
You can have a direct impact on our future generation’s health and eating habits. Since I am in control of our menus, it gives me the opportunity to introduce healthy foods and global cuisines that they may not be exposed to at home. Seeing our students get excited about eating fresh produce and enjoying food from other cultures brings me so much joy and it motivates me to keep doing the best I can for these kids.
Also, the work-life balance is really good, especially if you have a family or want to start one. Having winter, spring, and summer break is a nice reset for me, and it gives me a good amount of time to spend with family and friends along with being able to easily plan out vacations.
5. What are some challenges you encounter that someone considering school nutrition should be aware of?
We are bound by the rules that the USDA puts in place for our schools (and the rules are always changing!), so there are times where I feel like my hands are tied and I am not able to implement the things that I feel are most beneficial for our students and our program. Also, having to manage a large amount of staff can be difficult, as you have to deal with many different personalities and some petty drama here and there. It definitely takes a significant amount of investment in your team in order for everyone to work effectively. With that said, these challenges keep me on my toes and it motivates me to run a strong program year after year despite all the challenges and changes that happen.
6. How can dietetic interns get experience in school nutrition if this is a career they’re interested in pursuing?
If you aren’t able to have a rotation in school nutrition, most food service directors would be open to letting you shadow if you’re interested in this role. Also, if you have time off during the summer months, you can look up local schools who run summer feeding programs and ask to volunteer!
7. What advice would you offer to anyone considering a career in school nutrition?
My best advice is to identify what aspect of school nutrition you are most passionate about and to create a clear vision for how you will achieve it, because every school nutrition program is different and you will have an opportunity to make it your own. For me, my passion has always been about bringing people of different cultures together through food, and it has inspired me to introduce many Asian dishes to my students who have never been exposed to it before. Other directors may be passionate about farm-to-school, and their program has a great emphasis on local produce, education, and hands-on learning through school gardens. Sharing this vision during interviews is extremely important, because districts want to know how you can elevate their school nutrition program and provide more than the bare minimum to run your program.
8. How do you see school nutrition evolving or what types of changes do you hope to see during your career?
It has been exciting to see a greater emphasis placed on serving foods from other cultures, supporting local farmers, and environmentally sustainable practices in our school nutrition programs, and I think that will continue to grow in the next few years. From a nutrition guidelines standpoint, the USDA has plans to significantly reduce sodium and added sugars in our meals, which comes with obvious health benefits but also presents its challenges from an operations standpoint as directors need to create meals that still taste good despite greater limitations. My hope is that the USDA will listen to its stakeholders and make the nutrient reductions less severe so that school nutrition programs can have more freedom in creating healthy, balanced meals for our students.
9. Do you have any resources to share with someone interested in learning more about school nutrition?
The School Nutrition Association (SNA) and USDA School Meals are two great resources for someone wanting to learn more about school nutrition. SNA is made up of over 50,000 school food service professionals all across the country, and they play a significant role in education, training, and advocacy for school nutrition. The USDA website will give you a breakdown of all of the USDA school nutrition programs and its components, including breakfast, lunch, and farm -to-school initiatives.
10. What is one thing you love about being a registered dietitian?
I love how there are so many different ways that you can pursue your love of food and nutrition. Whether it’s in school food service, sports, clinical, or public health, all are great opportunities to serve others and help them in their journey to health and wellness.
Want to learn more about Sam? Check out his bio on our website.
Have a question? Leave a comment below, or send us an email at email@example.com! Don’t forget to check out our other posts on the BWS DI Blog for helpful tips during your dietetic internship and beyond.