RED LAKE -- Mary "Jo" Lange is preparing for two large challenges this year.

As the Food Service Coordinator for Red Lake Schools, she will need to quickly adapt to get meals to students under ever-changing circumstances. And as the recently named 2020-2021 President of Minnesota School Nutrition Association, she will spend the next year at the helm during what may shape up to be the organization’s most tumultuous.

Coming from a district of roughly 1,500 students, Lange will now steer the organization, which represents roughly 3,000 school nutrition professionals statewide.

The Minnesota School Nutrition Association is a statewide association whose members are committed to advancing school meal programs through education and advocacy, Lange said of the program.

Her role and background

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Lange is no stranger to school food service. For 16 years, she has worked in area schools ensuring children have access to healthy meals. She began working for the Blackduck School District and quickly became their food service director.

Eight years ago, she moved on to Red Lake Schools for a change of pace. In her role in Red Lake, she manages food service for five public school buildings and St. Mary’s Mission School.

“It’s a larger district, there’s approximately 1,500 students,” Lange said. “Basically, I oversee the food service operation for the district. I handle all of the operations from menu planning to ordering groceries to paying invoices, managing the budget and overseeing a staff of 11 employees in three kitchens.”

She estimated each day she helps serve meals to 200 students at the Ponemah school, 750 at Red Lake Elementary and the Early Childhood Center and 350 students at the Red Lake Secondary Complex.

Why school nutrition?

“It’s just vitally important for kids to get all of the healthy nutrients they need every day and I believe that school districts provide an important piece to that.”

Lange is inspired in her role to make sure every student has access to nutritious food, as it is crucial to learning, she said.

“Every student -- not only in Red Lake or in Minnesota -- but the whole country, deserves to have healthy, nutritious meals that they can count on every day,” Lange said. “There’s a lot of children in the country that don’t have access to healthy meals at home every day. When they come to school they know that they are going to get a great breakfast and a great lunch.”

The Minnesota School Nutrition Association

Lange said her time as a part of the Minnesota School Nutrition Association has made her feel supported in the world of school nutrition and helped her upward career trajectory. She has been on the board of the organization for a few years now.

She is honored to serve a one-year term as the organization’s leader, she said.

“I have served on the board under six different presidents and have observed many different styles of presidency,” said Lange. “I know the ins and outs of finance, marketing, education, by-laws, policy and procedures, conferences, legislative, membership and everything else MSNA does. My hope is to be a president that MSNA and its members are proud of, and I am excited to step up and serve to the best of my abilities.”

Upcoming challenges

Red Lake Schools announced last week the district will be distance learning until at least the end of the first quarter, after which it will reevaluate.

This poses a challenge to Lange, as she knows she may have to turn on a dime if the situation changes.

“That will be a challenge for the food service department, because basically every day that we’re in school the kids that are in school will be served breakfast and lunch in their classrooms and simultaneously we will have to prepare box or sack lunches and breakfasts for the kids that are at home and get those delivered to them.”

“District Food Service is going to have to turn everything around. That will be very labor-intensive, it’s going to be a real strain on the food service staff,” she continued. “It’ll be a challenge, a big challenge. That being said, our staff is professional and they’re experienced and I have no doubt that we’re going to be able to provide meals in whatever format we have to.”

Lange will also face a difficult task as the Minnesota School Nutrition Association president. She said the primary parts of her role are education and advocacy, which can be difficult without in-person meetings.

“That’s the biggest challenge, keeping our members educated and informed even though we can’t actually be together in-person,” she said.

Lange seems up to the task, however, as she has already helped to coordinate a virtual education conference with the California School Nutrition Association.

“I have always enjoyed a challenge, and I believe that this year will be a huge challenge for MSNA and its members,” said Lange. “I am looking forward to developing new ways to meet the needs of our members and helping to identify innovative methods for training and conferences.

" I also want the members to know that our dedication to supporting them won't change under any circumstances. MSNA is here for them and will continue to be here for them, always.