Larry Wade, Sr. — Director of School Nutrition Services; Chesapeake, Virginia
From starting with a school nutrition management company in New Jersey to creating an afterschool meal program, to navigating a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, during Larry Wade's 40-year career in public school nutrition, he's seen it all. It’s not often you meet someone with such expansive experience in this specific field, so when we were given the opportunity to meet and interview Larry, we were eager to learn as much as possible from this dedicated, caring individual. He was more than willing to share lessons and wisdom from his storied career.
In his current role, Larry oversees 45 schools with an enrollment of approximately 41,000 students in Chesapeake Public Schools. Keeping such a large student population fed has many hurdles, with Larry helping to steer a steady course through each challenge over the course of his career. Even during COVID restrictions, his teams were able to deliver 3 meals a day, 7 days a week. He’s quick to credit his staff as the unsung, unseen heroes in this monumental, successful endeavor.
These days, Larry’s helping navigate many of the common challenges others are facing across the country: staffing shortages, supply chain issues and rising food costs. “We are seeing some things in school nutrition that across my career I have not encountered before. For example, we have one product that costs 120% more than before COVID,” said Larry. In addition to this day to-day management responsibilities, Larry is currently doing everything he can by lobbying legislators and decision makers in Washington, D.C., for increased and sustained funding to support his district and those across the country.
When tackling issues in the cafeteria, Larry has been taking a unique approach to encouraging students to eat healthier. He explains, “We don’t want the trashcan to be the healthiest spot in a school cafeteria, so we’re addressing the issue as a marketing challenge. We try to think like restaurant marketers when crafting the messaging students see.” One of Larry's marketing strategies is the creation of SNN: School Nutrition News. It’s a newsletter and communication campaign modeled after blurbs and news updates popularized by CNN and other cable news channels. SNN’s updates keep students and parents informed about food trends, weekly specials, “Harvest of the Month” offerings and other helpful information on what’s happening in his schools’ cafeterias to keep families excited about school meals.
Larry has seen great success when marketing their locally sourced menu choices. Larry and his team have done a tremendous job reaching out to farmers and producers to incorporate as many locally grown items as possible. He shared, “We’ve been able to introduce Asian pears, fresh leafy greens in our salads, butternut squash, cabbage, kale… and they’re being enjoyed, not thrown in the trash! We have a robust farm-to-school concept in Chesapeake, and I’m excited about what can come from that program.”
In addition to fresh produce, Larry relies on manufacturers like General Mills to help his district overcome nutrition and menuing challenges, saying, “They’ve been willing to communicate with us to let us know about product availability and to help us avoid menu fatigue. That communication has been critical.” His district recently tested 2 ounce equivalent grain cereal bars and found them to be a big hit!
When asked to think back on his 40-year career and share a story that stands out, he told us about speaking with a young student he met during a breakfast program review. While making small talk, the inquisitive youngster said, “Please don’t mess with my breakfast program, because I can now hear the teacher.” Unsure of what the first grader was referring to, Larry asked him to explain. The student went on, “Before, I couldn’t hear my teacher because my stomach was talking louder than her. Because we have breakfast, I now do much better in school.” That interaction impacted the trajectory of Larry’s career and solidified his commitment to making sure no child’s hunger ever interferes with their ability to learn.
We were incredibly thankful Larry shared his story with us. It perfectly encapsulates the importance of school nutrition as well as his tireless dedication to this crucial need. We only wish we had more time to continue to learn from his tremendous journey. Larry, countless students have benefitted from your career and will continue to do so. We cannot thank you enough.
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