School nutrition professionals who are thinking big and taking action.
Even in the face of COVID-19, school nutrition staff are going above and beyond to feed kids in their communities. Read stories from fellow #Trayblazers all around the country—and discover the latest innovations, insights and tips you can use within your school district today.
Nutritionist with Hillsborough County Public Schools, Tampa, Florida
In April 2022, Hillsborough County Public Schools welcomed a new nutritionist with a passion for promoting healthy eating habits among students. She brought a wealth of knowledge and enthusiasm to the district, utilizing her extensive experience in dietary health and government policies.
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Charmonique Young; Child Nutrition Site Manager; Anniston High School; Anniston, Alabama
At the bustling Anniston High School, a remarkable woman named Charmonique Young leads a small but immensely effective team. Feeding over 400 students daily, Charmonique and her staff are on a mission to provide quality meals that sustain students throughout the day. Every step of her career has been a testament to the power of passion and unexpected twists that lead to fulfilling, impactful callings. When reflecting on her path and where’s been, she says, “It has been an amazing journey. I would not trade my experiences for anything.”
Heather Ehlke, Foodservice Director, Maple River Schools, Mapleton, Minnesota
Since beginning her career in school nutrition in 1996 as a lead cook, Heather has seen her fair share of changes along the way. She has rolled through them all with a positive outlook and winning attitude, an approach that's helped carry her through the bumps in the road through today. “There are going to be joyful times and hard times,” she says. “You just have to stick in there.”
Larry Wade, Sr. — Director of School Nutrition Services; Chesapeake, Virginia
From starting with a school nutrition management company in New Jersey to creating an afterschool meal program, to navigating a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, during Larry Wade's 40-year career in public school nutrition, he's seen it all. It’s not often you meet someone with such expansive experience in this specific field, so when we were given the opportunity to meet and interview Larry, we were eager to learn as much as possible from this dedicated, caring individual. He was more than willing to share lessons and wisdom from his storied career
Right off the bat, one of the first things LaChaeska said during her interview was simply, “I love what I do. I wouldn’t change anything.” Throughout our conversation, it was abundantly clear what an understatement that proved to be. LaChaeska pours herself into her work, always going the extra mile every single day to ensure each student is cared for — from their nutritional needs and beyond.
Change may often seem slow to come within the regulation-heavy world of K-12 foodservice.
But Maggie Hubbard embraces challenges and has found plenty of ways to pivot and excel
while always putting her students first.
One of the most amazing things about John is his dedication to creating meaningful connections with the individuals he serves. In his role with Sunshine Communities, a non-profit organization that supports people with developmental and intellectual disabilities, John oversees the daily nutrition of over 100 people, ranging from infants to octogenarians, across dozens of homes. However, he never lets time or distance distract him from doing all he can to make every person’s day a little brighter. “Part of what I most love about my job is meeting people and getting to know them on a personal level. Making the meal truly theirs is the whole point of what I do,” he explained.
When describing an extraordinary person, it’s often said they go above and beyond the call of duty. After speaking with Tena Sonko, it was abundantly clear that’s exactly what she does every single day — and in so many different ways. Tena is not merely a foodservice supervisor, she is also a teacher, a ServSafe certification instructor, a gardening mentor, a food show competition producer, a certified CPR trainer … and the list goes on. “She does so much with the kids that extends beyond simply serving meals,” said Shalita Forrest, Tena’s coworker and training coordinator. “She is a jewel in this facility because she provides way more than just child nutrition.”
With over 23 years of K-12 foodservice experience, Karen has seen it all. She has helped build school meal programs from the ground up, navigated many regulatory changes and helped her district work through a global pandemic. She does it all with professionalism and pride, and she never loses track of what’s most important — her students. Meko Ivy, child nutrition administrator at Hudson ISD, nominated Karen and says how “even before Covid, she went above and beyond to make sure all students were taken care of and they have the resources they needed for a balanced meal every day of the school year.”
In her first full year managing the Galena Park Middle School cafeteria in Texas, Juana has focused on one thing: leading by example. She came into the position at a very challenging time, but her can-do attitude, positivity, and empathy have turned things around for her staff and students. “We were just coming out of COVID,” she says. “Everyone was tired from being short staffed. I was able to come in and help everyone enjoy their job again. I tried to emphasize that
while we all have things going on outside of work, our goal here is to keep kids fed and provide a positive experience.”
Hearing feedback from students about school meals may not sound like the most welcome conversation, but Dalla Emerson embraces it. “I just love hearing from them, the good the bad, the ugly... Because at the end of the day, our focus is our students. That’s the one thing I try to preach over everything else: we have to put our students first — every day, in every action we take. I tell my team that I don’t care how the kids got to school, once they’re here, they are ours to love and take care of.” Dalla and her staff have even formed food committees to incorporate the input and continuously engage students in menu planning.
You can ask anyone, Lisa simply does not know how to do things by half measures. For
instance, when she was given the goal of increasing breakfast sales, she overdelivered… by
400%. It’s an understatement when she says things like, “If you give me a challenge, I’ll ask a
few questions, and then I'll achieve it.” There’s no wonder why she’s this month’s Trayblazer!
When Yun Kwon nominated Aaron Smith to be this month’s Trayblazer, she quickly summed up Aaron's impact on their students. “Aaron is changing the perception and image of school food by making it culturally diverse, healthy and fun. I have never heard or seen the things we are doing here in Seattle ever before.” After chatting with Aaron, we couldn’t agree more.
Seeing 2,500 evacuees lined up outside your school cafeteria is not something K-12
foodservice professionals are trained to handle. But in 2017, that’s exactly the challenge
Hurricane Irma presented to Caroline Trinder. At the time, , it was considered the most powerful
hurricane on record in the open Atlantic and the most intense hurricane to strike the continental
United States since Hurricane Katrina. In her role as Sarasota County Schools' area supervisor
of food and nutrition services, Caroline and just four other staff members did everything they
could to ensure her school’s facility (1 of 13 open in the area) was open to feed the community.
After speaking with Tonya Felton for only a few moments and she says things like, “'I make it my business to know all of my students’ names,' 'They’re my babies,' 'It’s like a family,' ‘They’re my children...'” you truly believe her. Every word is infused with passion and love. Tonya's commitment and enthusiasm make her the ideal child nutrition manager for the Anniston City School System in Alabama. It was an honor to talk with her and hear the difference she's making in her students' lives.
Tim Butts is a food service director with Aramark K-12 in Beloit, Wisconsin. Upon first speaking with Tim, his food expertise, passion and dedication quickly become apparent. He has over 15 years of experience in the industry, and it was our privilege to hear how he has been serving the Beloit school district and helping guide it with unique solutions and seasoned leadership.
Like so many K-12 programs across the country, Burke County School District’s foodservice staff went the extra mile to ensure that kids, along with their families, stayed fed and fueled during COVID. Foodservice Director Donna Martin, who is a registered Dietitian Nutritionist and has been with the district for 21 years, spearheaded the heroic effort to get students the nutrition they need.
As Foodservice Director for the Marshall, Alabama school district, Registered Dietician Casey Partain brings unbridled passion and energy to her job. Now in her ninth year, Casey and her team are constantly exploring smarter ways to feed a district population of 5,900 students of all income levels, spanning four different school feeder patterns across the county.
As the effects of COVID-19 continue to impact school districts across the country, K-12 kitchen staff have had to continuously pivot – all while putting smiles on their students’ faces and increasing participation. Kelly Raser, the Nutrition Services Director at Jordan Public Schools, and her staff are an outstanding example of this work.
You can’t say Sarasota County Schools without saying Sara Dan’s name—her career in school nutrition began there in 1996, serving as a Nutrition Educator, Training Supervisor and Area Supervisor. And in 2019, she took the reigns as Director of Food Nutrition Services at the 52-school district in southwest Florida.
Maria Anderson is passionate about keeping her students’ plates full—and she does it all while having a full professional plate herself. She’s a Nutrition Coordinator for both the Roseville and Saint Anthony-New Brighton school districts in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area.
Alicia Braun, a Registered Dietitian, was eager to get back into a role at a smaller district with a more close-knit crew—and she found her home at Coppell Independent School District in Coppell, TX! The past school year, her team put their expertise to the test to navigate a restriction-heavy 2020.
Calling all #Trayblazers—we want to hear more of your stories. Share with us how you've been moving school food forward in your community by using #Trayblazers on Twitter and Instagram!
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