Meet Alyssia L. Wright, Ed.S., Executive Director of School Nutrition at Fulton County Schools. Alyssia received the 2022 Silver Plate Award in the Elementary & Secondary Schools category, and was nominated by General Mills.
Interview: What Drives the Nation's Top Foodservice Operators?
We asked the 2022 Silver Plate Class to share some perspectives and words of wisdom with the industry. Find out what Alyssia had to say about her passion for foodservice, career accomplishments and what it means to be part of a legendary group of operators.
How did you get your start in the foodservice industry?
I must give my parents all the credit for landing in foodservice. My dad introduced me to the industry through hotels and my mom introduced me to K12 school nutrition. My dad worked in hotels for many years, and I loved the idea of designing and owning my own little Bed & Breakfast. Well, owning a B&B in metro Atlanta, GA is extraordinary, so the opportunity to intern at one was few and far between, but I pushed forward. I attended Georgia Southern University, and majored in Hotel and Restaurant Management with a minor in Business.
I was excited throughout every step of the journey, then I interned at a downtown Atlanta hotel working in all areas when they told me I would have to work Christmas Eve and Day. Coming from a family of educators, this was a hard pill to swallow. I shared that I come from a family where we spent the holidays together and I would need to change my schedule. The manager laughed and stated: in this industry you will work holidays, see you next week. At that point I began to open my mind up for other options. Shortly thereafter, my mom (who worked as a media specialist in Fulton County Schools) introduced me to the school nutrition director who was implementing the district’s first manager intern program. I told my mom, “No mama, I don’t want to wear hairnets and be the lunch lady!” She told me otherwise and as a result, I joined the FCS team. A few months later I was selected to manage two elementary schools as a multi-site manager. It wasn’t until I was working in my role as area supervisor that I knew my career in school nutrition was here to stay. My passion for the work was oozing out of my pores and even greater, my soul was fed daily knowing that we served a real purpose. What we did daily had a greater meaning and I was forever committed to ensuring every child that wants to eat with us had a positive dining experience.
What do you enjoy most about your career in foodservice?
There are so many areas I could share about my career that I enjoy. “It’s never a dull day in school nutrition” is the ‘ol adage that is said at least daily amongst our team. But thinking about all the successes, I would have to say that what I enjoy most about my career in foodservice is knowing the impact being made on the lives of our students. It is exciting to know that the opportunity is there to provide students with a great dining experience that will influence their food choices throughout their lives. I love being able to introduce our students to new healthy and tasty selections each year, that ultimately support their education.
During the part of my career as an Area Supervisor, I was reviewing one of our schools when the school counselor came in explain that one of the students was still hungry after eating their breakfast. Since the child had already received their meal, another meal would have cost the adult price. The student did not have money on their account to purchase the second meal. What I found out was the student had not had much of anything to eat since leaving school last Friday. The parents were away from home, so it was just the student, their older siblings, and a cousin. I chose to pay for the meal for the student and would have paid for many more until the child felt full. I also put additional money on their account to help cover any future needs. So yes, making the difference in a child’s life is what I enjoy most.
Tell us about your biggest career accomplishment.
I have so much to be thankful for throughout my career. I am truly fortunate to work and give back in the same district I grew up in as a child. As I stated previously, I began my career with Fulton County Schools as a manager intern in the school nutrition program. Therefore, I would have to say growing from an intern to executive director of the program is my biggest career accomplishment. Once I knew I was supposed to be here to do all I could to help our kids, I was committed to the mission.
There was one specific situation that confirmed my career path. While working as an area supervisor, I supervised 28 school nutrition programs. It was after breakfast ended in one of the high schools, I walked out into what I thought was an empty café only to find a student at the far end of the cafe putting items in his bookbag from the trash can. I couldn’t quite tell what the items were, so I walked over to ask him. Because of my petite statue, I was often confused for a student so when I walked up, he basically told me to keep it moving and that I didn’t see anything. I introduced myself and continued with small talk to let him know I was harmless. After some time, he admitted to me he was putting the uneaten fruit in his bag to take home for his siblings. He said that he needed to make sure he had food for them. My heart immediately sank to my feet while tears came to my eyes. I told him to wait there, I’ll be right back. I went to the kitchen and purchased items for him to take home and set it up for him to come back on any day he needed help for him to receive that support. At that point, I was determined I wanted to grow in my career to the point that I would be able to have a greater impact on the lives of students.
Many do not realize that school nutrition can be a large organization, so with the students’ lives at the forefront of my goal, I worked my way up through the ranks. Once I completed the intern program, I managed my first two schools, then became Area Supervisor, and then Coordinator. Now as the Executive Director I am responsible for overseeing the operation of 97 kitchens. I am truly recognizing daily, my biggest career accomplishment is doing my best to create positive lifelong eating habits for students while dining in the school cafés.
How have you kept yourself and your team motivated this past year?
In past years, I’ve always had to be creative when it came to finding ways to motivate the team because we couldn’t use monetary methods, but I still wanted to show appreciation. I would honor those that met the KPI’s from the previous year with bronze, silver, and gold medals; I created superlative awards recognizing managers that went over and beyond in various categories; I surprised them with annual calendars filled with pictures highlighting the managers and their teams from various promotions throughout the year; and top scorers on health inspections were recognized with plaques they proudly hang on their serving lines.
Then COVID changed it all…our staff worked every weekday from March 16, 2020, until they had their first off day November 2021. The team was wiped out and worn down, but we had a greater purpose: our students. Outside of their sheer motivation to keep going for the kids, I tried to find ways to encourage and keep the team together, charging forward. Dialogue with the Director was a virtual gathering that allowed me to connect with the team at one time — the managers and I chatted about current happenings, family updates, etc. Monthly Shout Outs allowed all staff to recognize those who inspired them, helped them, or did something positive. Central office would shout out managers and managers often gave shout outs to central office team members. Above all, the school teams needed help — hands in the kitchen! We were extremely short staffed, in some cases not enough staff to open our doors, but our customers were coming regardless. What better way to show true support than for all of us to get in the schools with them, working side by side to help fill critical staffing gaps. We created a monthly calendar, still in operation today, where two central office staff were assigned to work in schools. We opened our doors every day and best of all our full team truly exhibited ONE TEAM, ONE FULTON. I even managed to have it spill over into our entire division volunteering in the kitchen. The directors of Transportation, Facilities and Maintenance, Capital Programs, and our Chief of Operations all volunteered in the cafes. All expressed a new appreciation for what we do in foodservice daily!
What advice do you have for someone new to the foodservice industry?
First, BREATHE and take it day by day! Be patient! The foodservice industry is not for the faint of heart; you must have a passion for it. Regardless of the segment of foodservice you are in you have customers, so the energy you bring to the job will be seen and felt by your actions. Always know you can take a moment to yourself. Use that time to reset, set priorities for the day, and like a football team that just won their first game, celebrate the victories.
Second, wait before making BIG changes! Give yourself time to learn the way things work in that particular operation. Big changes create anxiety of the unknown and a lack of trust. Instead, use the first 90 days to observe, take notes, set goals, determine your champions, and establish a plan.
Third, listen to your TEAM! Engage them early on! Being visible is key and a great way to get to know your team and for them to get to know you. Also, working side by side is a great way to build trust because they will see you in the trenches and will understand you will not give them any task that you are not willing to do yourself. Listen to understand, not to respond. Your team wants to feel like they have a voice and can bring value to the team. Share your vision and goals then welcome their input and feedback. After all, you can’t drive your vision and goals alone, you need shared vision!
What does being an IFMA Silver Plate recipient mean to you?
Being the recipient of the IFMA Silver Plate gives me a true sense of accomplishment not only for me, but for my dedicated team that work hard every day to keep our operation successful. School nutrition is my passion, and I am thankful I had mentors encouraging me in my growth over the years, making this achievement so special. It is both rewarding and humbling to be recognized for doing what you love.
Now to be transparent, I’d been following IFMA for several years, as well as past years award recipients. I would read their bios and thought these are truly amazing people that have done amazing things for their organizations. I shared with a team member, “I want that plate!” She laughed, we laughed together, but I was internally serious. Simply because I felt it symbolized true accomplishment in the industry. Daily, our focus is on feeding kids, gaining new customers, providing valuable nutrition education, and seeking to create a memorable dining experience, so for others to see what we do is worthy of recognition is genuinely gratifying.
What is your favorite meal?
My Favorite School Lunch Meal is General Tso’s Chicken tossed with Peppers and Onions served over Brown Rice, Edamame Succotash, and Fruit Medley.
2023 Nominations Are Open!
Click the button below to fill out the online nomination form.
NOTE: You will be able to save your form and work on it later. Make sure to submit it prior to the deadline of November 18, 2022.