She ushered in a broader selection of healthy food choices

If you want to know about the legacy of Julie Hedine, the recently retired director of Food and Nutrition for the Pasco County School District, you should rewind to the days when school menus were different.

You should think about the jumbo chocolate chip cookie.

Of course, it was wildly popular with the students.

It was also an extremely profitable item, adding to the program’s financial flexibility. But, Hedine knew better.

“When she told us we should back away from those cookies and focus on healthy items, we all agreed with her,’’ said Rick Kurtz, who hired Hedine in 1995 as the county’s first registered dietician and then selected her as the replacement for program director in 2012.

“She took a lot of heat for that. But, she knew it was best to move away from the jumbo chocolate chip cookies — because that was the best thing for kids. That’s how she always operated,’’ Kurtz said.

Julie Hedine recently retired from the top job in Pasco County Schools’ department of Food and Nutrition Services. (Courtesy of Pasco County School District)

Hedine, who oversaw 750 employees and a $38-million annual budget, was there when the last fryer was removed from Pasco’s school kitchens.

She piqued the interest of vegetarians — and all students, really — by introducing hummus platters. She prided herself on the selection of fresh fruits and vegetables — every day.

She made the dollars stretch and maintained great relationships with vendors, always keeping new food trends in mind. She standardized menus and recipes throughout the county, for a more efficient approach.

When Hedine took over, Pasco had 38 schools/feeding stations. Now there are more than 80.

“We grew significantly and lot of things changed, but we always tried to keep it interesting for the students and follow trends,’’ Hedine said. “We wanted our students to want to eat with us. It doesn’t do any good to put out a meal that kids have no interest in eating, no matter how healthy it is.

“You have to find a happy medium, where you are satisfying nutritional requirements, but also making it enticing for students to participate,” she said.

Hedine, born and raised in Phoenix, was food and nutrition director for the Scottsdale (Arizona) School District before moving to Florida, after her marriage. She spent one year with the Hillsborough County School District before shifting to Pasco’s dietician position.

Kurtz already knew bigger things were ahead.

“She was director material from the day she walked in, so I’m grateful that she stayed with Pasco and didn’t leave for something else,’’ Kurtz said. “I knew we needed a registered dietician. I wanted one slightly moderate, child focused and someone bright. Julie brought all of that, plus she has such a happy personality, a contagious laughter and that was great to have in our office.

“She knew nutrition. She was bright enough to work the numbers and figure out how to do things within the constraints of our program. She was the perfect choice to take over and take the food program to another level, which she certainly did.’’

Hedine will pass the reins to Stephanie Spicknall, her assistant, secure in the knowledge that the Pasco food and nutrition program is on solid ground.

What will Hedine miss?

The people.

“I loved working in the field, as I called it, getting in the kitchen to help and collaborate,’’ Hedine said. “I wasn’t able to do that as much as I would’ve liked. You might need to work on budgets or attend meetings. My favorite part was being there, being involved.

“We had a lot of employees, but it’s amazing how many of them I got to know. And, of course, the students are why you do it. I could’ve gone in a number of different directions with my career, but my passion has been making sure kids are fed a healthy meal. Kids are who kept me in this business all these years,” she said.

But, Hedine also attended to many non-glamorous details, such as the standardization of protocols to ensure food safety.

Kurtz put it this way: “I think flexibility and managing all the little things no one wants to think about really define Julie. Managing waste. Offer versus serve. Making sure kids get what they want and not having them just take things and throw them away.

“All these things are so important to the program, both fiscally and for the overall environment issues,” he said.

After a 25-year career with the Pasco County School District, Hedine had been contemplating retirement. In the spring of 2019, just before the school year concluded, her health cast a deciding vote.

She also had suffered from headaches, but they began coming with more intensity. She felt fatigued and her vision seemed off. She worried when she couldn’t write in a straight line. A doctor diagnosed her with a cancerous brain tumor — Glioblastoma, which also afflicted John McCain and Ted Kennedy — so she underwent surgery.

Her husband, Gary, also was battling cancer. In fact, they underwent radiation treatments together. They both agreed it was time to seize the day.

“As much as I loved my job, it’s time to do other things and spend time with my husband,’’ said Hedine, who will split time between Florida and their place in Cape Cod. “I will still undergo treatment and I’ll be watched closely for the rest of my life.

“I’m very goal-oriented and I didn’t want to leave until some things were accomplished. But, I have to take care of myself. I think COVID-19 may have validated the timing of the decision also. My career was wonderful, but now it’s time for the next chapter. I have nothing but fond memories.’’

By Joey Johnston

Published August 19, 2020

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