Five Questions … With Marla Caplon, Director, Food and Nutrition Services
There are a few things you should know about Marla Caplon.
She is determined.
She does not take no for an answer.
She is always moving. Fast and forward. She stays on top of the latest food and nutrition trends and the newest USDA regulations.
As director of the Department of Food and Nutrition Services, Caplon is Montgomery County Public Schools’ food boss.
She oversees 800 employees and the ins-and-outs of a new 77,000-square-foot facility in Gaithersburg. Every day, employees deliver pre-plated entrees to all elementary schools. They prepare and bag all soups, sauces (including cheese, marinara, chili and vegetable soup), along with dressings and taco meat. They also make things like mashed potatoes and blueberry bread. The foods are immediately cooled to prevent bacterial growth and the bags are delivered to schools. For macaroni and cheese, for instance, the schools cook the macaroni, then mix in the cheese made at the central facility.
Secondary schools receive grocery deliveries once or twice a week, depending on the size of school. Bread and produce come from outside vendors twice a week, and milk is delivered every day or every other day. Schools with salad bars get deliveries straight from the produce companies.
You should also know: she keeps a bowl of the really good chocolate on a table in her office. It’s stocked with mini Hershey bars, Mr. Goodbars and Reese’s Cups.
“I’m real,” she says, adding that her own food weakness is pizza. “People come in here all day long and take candy. I fill this bowl up at least once a week. Besides,” she says with a smile, “They’re small.”
One of Caplon’s passions is the summer meals program, which helps bridge the summer break nutrition gap. More than 35 percent of children in MCPS are eligible for Free and Reduced-price Meals during the school year, and that number has grown dramatically in recent years. Last summer, nearly 10,000 students received meals at more than 115 sites, including eight walk-in locations where children 18 and under can come in for a free meal. MCPS partners with many county organizations and nonprofit groups to find locations for meals.
“That has been in practice here since the 1970s,” she says. “We need to find ways to serve more children. It’s an entitlement program; there’s no maximum. The limitation is knowing where there are programs that are eligible that we can reach.
“Last year, we partnered with the recreation department and created a free camp. They used high school kids for the camp; we signed children up and they got a supervised activity and a free meal. I think we had an enrollment of 50 at Maryvale and Fox Chapel [elementary schools], two highly impacted areas.”
Earlier this month, Caplon was named a Hero Against Hunger by Manna Food Center for her dedication to the nonprofit organization and for efforts to help eliminate hunger.
Caplon’s upbringing may have something to do with her sensitivity to those who are hungry and struggling to make ends meet. Her parents were immigrants from Poland. Her mother spent time in a concentration camp; her parents met when they came to America. Neither could speak English.
“Dad worked at Giant Food stocking shelves,” she says. “He was stocking Campbell’s soup and he couldn’t read English, so he put things on the shelves out of order. People were nice and recognized the fact that he didn’t understand. That permeates to this day. It’s important to recognize when people want to work, but they’re having a difficult time. We have to do what we can to help people. The majority of our workforce is not white and, for a good percentage of them, English is not their first language. We have to be sensitive to that.”
Tell me about your journey to working for MCPS. Is this what you always wanted to do?
I graduated from Northwood High School in 1972. As a kid, I wanted to be a doctor, but I didn’t even ask [my parents]. They would have found a way to send me to medical school.
I knew I wanted to be in some type of healthcare where I could nurture and take care of people, because that is my personality. I went to the University of Maryland; I didn’t know what I wanted to go into. I took science courses. I was intrigued by nutrition and how the body parts are connected and diseases. I decided to become a dietician. I got a bachelor’s in nutrition.
I worked in a long-term care facility for 12 years and saw an opportunity to come to MCPS. Anecdotally, I ate lunch in MCPS for all my years and never recognized the fact that there was a place for a dietician.
I was hired as an area supervisor in 1988. I knew then that this would be the last place I would work. I knew that. There was an energy and excitement about working with folks outside of the dietary field. My whole feeling from day one was knowing that individually and as a team we made a difference in the life of a child.
Over the years, you must have seen a lot of change and discussions on school nutrition.
When I chose to become a dietician, nutrition and dietetics were nowhere in the public focus as they are now. Who knew there would be so much attention to the field? It was not on my radar when I graduated in 1977. What was going on in schools then? There were USDA regulations in place for meals, but then we were required to serve whole milk. The focus was more on protein, fat and carbs, rather than the types of foods kids were eating. There was no such thing as whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables; there was nothing called trans fats. There were no guidelines on goods that were sold as snack items or a la carte items. I can remember serving lines with Hawaiian Punch, Haagen-Dazs ice cream, Gatorade, Big Momma cookies; these were cookies we made that were three individual cookies baked together. And it was OK.
Back when I went to school, we had milkshake machines. My lunch at Sligo Middle School was a hamburger and a milkshake. Every day.
Back in 2004, I remember our team had a discussion and we had all these guidelines around meals, but nothing that provides any kind of guidelines for a la carte items. There was no legislation; we created our own set of guidelines for MCPS. Now just released from USDA, nine years later, are guidelines that for the most part mirror what we’ve had in place since 2004. We were really ahead of the curve.
USDA has ramped up the regulations. So now, 100 percent of grains have to be whole grains. We’ve been working with manufacturers for years to come up with products that are palatable. For instance, our pizza crust is whole grain. For years, we had a pizza crust that got a lot of criticism. Now we have three products—one is a French bread, one is a personal round, the other is a stuffed-crust triangle pizza. We can do the healthy stuff all day, but at the end of the day you have to find products that kids want to eat. You can’t just meet the guidelines; you have to meet the guidelines and come up products that students will accept. Pizza is a good example. We had a whole-grain crust but it tasted like cardboard. It showed in our sales and, because of that, we moved away from manufacturers that didn’t move fast enough to come up with palatable alternatives.
Today, the white milk we have is 1 percent white and skim and we do a fat-free, reduced-sugar chocolate milk. We want to push to do better, but at some point, you’ve got to realize that if what you’ve got is good and it meets the guidelines, leave it alone.
You were just recognized by Manna Food Center as their first Hero Against Hunger. Tell me about that.
I joined the Manna board [of directors] in 2006. It’s a really awesome organization. It’s been helpful to Manna to have someone from the school system on their board.
They do such wonderful work. With the Smart Sacks program, it was not my idea but I helped expand it. [The Smart Sacks program sends bags of healthy food home each Friday with about 2,300 students who receive Free and Reduced-price Meals.]
That evening was so incredibly overwhelming. I am not a center of the plate attention person. This was an amazing event. It was warm and incredibly humbling. There had to be 75 to 80 people there and any one of them could be a Hunger Hero.
What do you like best about your job?
When I can think out of the box and make an idea happen. I’m a left-landed, total out-of-the-box thinker.
You follow the rules. But you’ve got to think outside the box for a way to accommodate each situation. It makes all the difference.
Somehow, some way at the end of each day, I have that feeling of ‘I done good.’ And hopefully that permeates to the staff here. I think our division is awesome. I think what we do every day, as well as others like transportation and building services, we’re the unsung heroes. We feed kids well every day. The hearts of all 800 of our employees are in the right place.
What do you do when you’re not at work?
I don’t have a lot of free time. I love being with my kids and my family. I love to read. I’m very active in my neighborhood. I did the concessions at our pool for many years. The kids were on swim team, and I was flipping the burgers and hot dogs, arranging for Costco runs and watching the soda go on sale at Giant.
I’ve been a consultant dietician at a nursing home for the last 28 years. I go there every Saturday. It started back in 1986; I was single. I bought a car and was sure I wouldn’t be able to afford it. There was an ad in the paper for a food service manager/dietician. I walked in there, spoke to the administration and told them I could save them money. I told them, ‘You don’t need a food service manager; you could hire a manager for the kitchen and hire a consultant dietician.’ It continues a clinical connection for me; I can’t seem to quit.
I have two kids: Amy is a sophomore at the University of Maryland and in the School of Public Health. My son David is a senior at Maryland; he’s ranked first in the School of Accounting.
I have a dog, Buddy, a westie. My husband’s retired and that’s why I work. He plays racquetball, tennis, golf and has lunch with somebody different every day.