Posted: Sep. 23, 2017 9:20 pm
PALMYRA, Mo. — Morgan Ramey never imagined she would end up with a career in food management.
Ramey always liked to cook, and she enjoyed being in the kitchen trying new things. But the main reason she went to work at a Palmyra School District cafeteria in January 2009 was so she could work on the same schedule as her children’s school timetable.
“I started out as the salad and fruit girl,” she recalled.
Ramey quickly fell in love with cafeteria work. The following year, she became kitchen manager at the middle school. In 2015 she became the district’s director of nutrition services and was put in charge of all three cafeterias at the high school, middle school and elementary school.
Her career has been taking off since.
Two months ago, Ramey was attending a conference in St. Charles for employees of Opaa Food Management — the company that provides food services for Palmyra and 219 other school districts in six Midwestern states.
As an Opaa employee, Ramey was thrilled to learn she was being inducted into the company’s President’s Circle, which — based on meeting goals during the previous year — recognizes the top 10 percent of the 220 food service directors. Ramey then received an even bigger surprise. She was introduced as one of three regional winners of the Director of the Year award, which honors top directors who excelled beyond expectations.
Ramey was floored by this announcement.
“I never thought in a million years” she’d be named one of the winners, Ramey said.
“It was a huge honor,” she said. “It just gives me more motivation in my job.”
Ramey said she loves working in the Palmyra school system even though she is not a district employee. Instead, she is one of 3,000 Opaa employees in 220 school districts that provide food services to a combined enrollment of 220,000 students.
Ramey said many school districts across the nation, including Palmyra, have been contracting with private companies to provide food services in local schools. She said this trend took off after the passage of the federal Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which set stricter national guidelines for the nation’s school lunch program. The guidelines spell out precisely much how much protein, whole-grain bread, fruit, vegetables and dairy products must be offered daily to students.
Ramey said Opaa makes it easier for school districts to meet the federal rules by having a nutritionist and chef on staff at the company’s central headquarters in Chesterfield.
“They come up with all of the recipes and do all the nutritional analysis,” Ramey said. “That way, we know we’re in compliance when it comes to the recipes.”
The central office then distributes a list of menu options so the food service directors in each district can select which menu items their students would like.
“That makes it a lot easier for us,” Ramey said. “We just have to follow their recipes and go from there.”
Ramey’s job is to oversee the cafeteria operations in the three schools and supervise the district’s 15 food service employees.
“Part of our job as the director is to manage the money and make sure that we are within our goals” for food costs, labor costs, student participation and other criteria, she said.
Ramey said her main objective since starting as food service director was to earn entry into the President’s Circle, and she was pleased that happened this year. Earning the Director of the Year award was extra icing on the cake.
The regional supervisor who nominated Ramey for the award touted her strong relationships with the school district’s leadership, staff and students and her willingness to serve as a mentor to other food service managers starting out.
“I just kind of ended up in this business by accident, but I can honestly say I love my job,” Ramey said. “It’s hard work cooking for all these kids, but it’s very rewarding. I love the kids, and I love the hugs I get.”
Ramey said she has come to appreciate the importance of school food programs in meeting the nutritional needs of students.
“For some of these kids, this is their only hot meal of the day,” she said. “It’s hard not to let your heart get involved with those students.”