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Front & Center: Staff, students feed his love for job

Doug Wordell, director of nutrition services for Spokane Public Schools, visits the North Central High School kitchen on Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2018. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Doug Wordell, director of nutrition services for Spokane Public Schools, visits the North Central High School kitchen on Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2018. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

During the next nine months, Doug Wordell will coordinate the preparation and serving of more than 4 million nutritious meals.

And kitchens aren’t even his natural habitat.

“Having done the Hawaiian Ironman,” said the director of Spokane Public Schools Nutrition Services, “I look at food as fuel.”

In his own defense, Wordell does allow himself to brag about his breakfasts.

“I make Mickey Mouse pancakes that are wicked good – scratch mix with 100 percent whole wheat, light on the salt and sugar. Maybe throw in some fresh blueberries or chocolate chips for a special treat.

“But I get kicked out of the kitchen a lot.”

With the approach of a new school year, Wordell paused recently to discuss how today’s cafeteria fare differs from what he grew up with in Spokane 40 years ago, and suggested ways students can make the most of their lunchroom experience.

S-R: What schools did you attend?

Wordell: Finch Elementary, Glover Middle School and Shadle Park High School. I ran on Shadle’s last state champion cross-country team in 1982. All seven of us were seniors.

S-R: What were your interests in high school?

Wordell: Besides girls, I loved science, running and cycling.

S-R: What was your first job?

Wordell: I delivered The Spokesman-Review back in the ’70s. That taught me to be on time and keep my word.

S-R: Where did you attend college?

Wordell: Washington State University. I was on the rowing team, and planned to go into physical therapy and work with Olympic athletes. But WSU didn’t have a physical therapy program, so they steered me toward biology. Instead, I decided to get a degree in nutrition, thinking physical therapy and nutrition would make a great combo.

S-R: But?

Wordell: I met this blonde Scandihoovian girl on the rowing team. We started dating, married the summer before my last year, had a baby on the way three months later, and I needed a job. I interviewed with Marriott’s school food service division, interned at Madigan Hospital in Tacoma and then was offered a job. That was almost 30 years ago, and it’s been a pretty incredible career. The diversity of the field is so great – from working with students and training staff to dealing with USDA regulations, innovative equipment and facility design.

S-R: What brought you to Spokane Public Schools?

Wordell: I worked for Marriott a couple of years as a supervisor, then spent seven more with the Bend-LaPine school district in Oregon. We loved Bend, but when this position opened up, giving us an opportunity to be closer to family, I applied.

S-R: Did you have mentors along the way?

Wordell: Several come to mind – particularly Pat Finn at Marriott.

S-R: What lesson sticks out?

Wordell: When you were with Pat, you had his complete attention. I’ve tried to emulate his ability to listen well, connect and convey the same compassion for people.

S-R: What other skills have proved useful?

Wordell: High school drama class made me comfortable in front of people – the ability to passionately communicate ideas and dreams.

S-R: How has your department evolved since you arrived two decades ago?

Wordell: For starters, we changed the name from “food services” to “nutrition services” because we want to talk about more than just food. We encourage lifelong healthy eating habits.

S-R: What else?

Wordell: We added a catering service for our administration and teaching staff because I wanted to raise the image of what we do. We also began an after-school snacks program, and a fresh fruit and vegetable program.

S-R: How do the meals served in local high schools today differ from what you remember from your years at Shadle Park?

Wordell: Back then, we had a choice between chili, chili or chili. Around the time I was a junior or senior, they brought in a second option once or twice a week – taco salad – and that line was pretty long. Now, if you walk into Shadle’s cafeteria, there are six or seven lines that offer deli choices, pork street tacos – one of my favorites – pizza, an Asian line and a salad bar. It’s like a mini-food court.

S-R: How much does that add to the cost of providing student meals?

Wordell: A more complex menu means a little less efficiency. But if we didn’t change, we wouldn’t have customers. That said, we’re required to break even, and with the help of USDA reimbursements we’re able to do that. We run this like a business, so we can keep classroom dollars in the classroom.

S-R: Today’s variety is more interesting. But is it also healthy?

Wordell: Absolutely. Our mission statement is: “Nourishing minds and bodies with delicious food.”

S-R: How often do you eat school lunches?

Wordell: Almost every day. Sometimes I go to more than one school for lunch to sample new recipes. I am so lucky!

S-R: What entrées do students prefer?

Wordell: Pizza and burgers are still their favorites. Our burgers are 100 percent beef patties, and our homemade muffins and whole-grain pizza crusts use Shepherd’s Grain wheat grown and milled locally.

S-R: How many students choose to buy school lunches?

Wordell: Right now we only serve about 37 percent of the high school enrollment. We want to raise that number. Overall, we serve about 55 to 60 percent of the total student enrollment.

S-R: Do students suggest personal favorites they’d like to see on the menu?

Wordell: Yes. We do focus groups and try to do a survey at least every other year. One item that came up was macaroni and cheese, so we’re looking at recipes.

S-R: How about restricted diets?

Wordell: About 500 of our 31,000 students have life-threatening allergies, and we work very hard to get the right food choices to them.

S-R: Do staff buy your meals?

Wordell: Yes, but it varies by school. Rogers has a staff lounge right next to the cafeteria, so I would say 50 percent of the staff there eat school lunches. At schools where the lounge is farther away, the percentage is lower.

S-R: What goes into preparing for a new school year?

Wordell: We have to re-up inventories we dropped in June, send out bids, coordinate with vendors, train new staff and do all sorts of marketing stuff.

S-R: What do you like most about your job?

Wordell: The people – my team and the kids. Lunch ladies are the salt of the earth. There’s no fuss, no muss. They get the work done.

S-R: Do you have any “lunch men”?

Wordell: We have about a dozen – but that’s less than 10 percent overall.

S-R: What do you like least about your job?

Wordell: Politics and bureaucracy. It’s slow, and I don’t like going slow sometimes.

S-R: You envisioned a career working with Olympic athletes. What about this career has surprised you?

Wordell: How good a mission educating our kids is. I feel very grateful to be in this field.

S-R: Do you have a management motto?

Wordell: “People first.”

S-R: When someone discovers what you do, what do they typically ask?

Wordell: “Is ketchup a vegetable?”

S-R: How do you respond?

Wordell: I josh with them. “Of course! Didn’t you know that?” Then I explain what we do – the menu changes, the variety – because when kids choose their food themselves, they’re less likely to waste it.

S-R: If someone is curious, can they come see what today’s students are served?

Wordell: They’re welcome to share a meal with their child or grandchild. Just call the school office and make arrangements.

S-R: Are there kids who get most, if not all, of their food from school cafeterias?

Wordell: I have heard those stories – kids who tell their principal they don’t like vacation breaks because they don’t know where they’ll get another meal before school resumes. That’s why during the summer we serve more than 100,000 meals at 42 sites.

S-R: What challenges lie ahead?

Wordell: Financial ones, primarily. If USDA gives us a 2 percent bump, but our labor or food costs climb faster, it’s tough. The trucking shortage has also been a big deal.

S-R: Do your employees tend to stick around?

Wordell: Yes. This is a great place to work.

S-R: What qualities do you look for in job applicants?

Wordell: For office staff positions, I look for 49 percent technical, 51 percent people skills. If you’re talking about kitchen staff, people skills are 90 percent. If someone loves kids and loves food, we can teach them the skills.

S-R: What’s your secret talent?

Wordell: I love singing in the shower, even if I can’t carry a tune in a bucket.

S-R: Speaking of buckets, what’s at the top of your bucket list?

Wordell: Cycling across the United States, and hiking a section of the Pacific Crest Trail.

S-R: What advice would you offer students who want to get the most out of Spokane Public Schools’ lunch program?

Wordell: Get to know your lunch team. Say “thank you” to them. They love kids who love them. Also, because tastes change as you grow up, we have a program for younger kids called Adventure Bites. Try new foods, please.

Writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached at mguilfoil@comcast.net.


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