Food service and a smile

Published 7:21 pm Tuesday, May 30, 2023

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Mary Weikum retiring as long-time Food and Nutrition Director


At the end of June, one of Austin Public Schools’ most stalwart administrators will be calling it a career.

After 22 years, Food and Nutrition Director Mary Weikum will be retiring on June 30 and will be able to look back on a career that has seen the district bolster the diet its students eat with variety and health in mind as well as a number of programs ensuring kids received meals each day.

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“I think the thing that has stuck with me the most and I tried to do the most is remember the students are the goal,” Weikum said while sitting in Austin High School’s cafeteria. “Sometimes adults get in the way of what’s best for the kids. I tell people in our department, if there is a choice — what is the best thing for the kids? It should always be students first.”

Weikum came to APS in 2001, after working in the bakery department for Hy-Vee. Her job at that time was special events coordinator and through her positioned coordinated meetings and banquets.

Eventually, Weikum moved more to school lunch and in 2007 was named director.

Weikum will be the first to tell you that there was a learning curve in the beginning.

“I was in the dark when I started here,” she said. “I knew nothing about any of the regulations. I really, actually was shocked when I saw all that went into providing the school meals.”

However, her time at Hy-Vee allowed her a background that helped manage the department. She said that what was important is that there are many ways to accomplish the same end and it’s helped strengthen the department.

In fact, under Weikum’s time as director, APS has seen a growth of its food services that over time has grown to offer students plenty of options to try something new. At the same time the department has maintained the goals of health laid out by the district.

Those goals were a bit of a challenge in the beginning, though.

“One of the biggest challenges was when the regulations changed when the Obamas were in the administration and honestly for the better,” Weikum said. “We want to serve healthy meals, but it was a big, steep curve to getting the kids on board to wanting those meals.”

That challenge was heightened in a world where fast food options are so prevalent.

“They want burgers, they want pizza, they want nuggets. They want things that they can get in a fast food place,” Weikum said. “We’re trying to give them that but in a healthy manner, because honestly the bottom line is if kids don’t want it, we’re not doing our job.”

The key has been starting out young and introducing many of these options in the earlier grades. Through this process, Weikum and the Food and Nutrition Department has been able to open the world of food up to ages that are more receptive.

The hope is that it will carry on, and it seems to be working.

“We start with fruit and vegetable bars at the elementary level,” Weikum said. “What’s so great about that is it gives young kids, who are sometimes more willing to try new things than older kids, it gives them a chance to try jicama for example. We get them to challenge their palette a little bit and try things and I think that’s been the best thing. We want kids to try new things.”

While Weikum has enjoyed watching and developing the food options in the school, she has just as equally enjoyed her time with the staff she’s worked with over the years.

She acknowledges that many don’t know the impact her staff has on students.

“We have kids that love their lunch ladies,” she said. “The staff is amazing. We talk at every in-service all the time about making sure they greet the kids, see how their day is going and thank them.”

It’s a team effort all the way through.

“It’s definitely a team,” Weikum said. “I feel like I can go to them and they can come to me and we’re going to make it work for reach other. I respect them all so much. It’s not easy. It’s sometimes very unappreciated. I think every day they are amazing.”

Overall, Weikum’s time in Austin has been one for the books and is something she is taking with her when her time comes to an end on June 30.

“I enjoyed working with other administrators. I enjoyed working with the principals,” she said. “I enjoyed working with the food service staff especially and I love the kids. No one would do this if it weren’t for the kids.”

Even though she’s retiring, it’s certainly not going to be the end of the story. No beaches for Weikum — at least not yet.

She is also part of the Hometown Food Security Project, an initiative led by the United Way of Mower County and Hormel Foods to approach the issue of food insecurity through longterm solutions that can be sustained.

“I’m passionate about food security. I want no one to be hungry,” she said. “I’m on one of the teams that’s been working on this for a year and that’s what I plan to do — continue to work with that group.”