Kelley Mitchell MS, RD has worked in the Fontana Unified School District as a Nutrition Specialist for almost seven years. When she started, she worked mainly with special diets and menu planning, but her job has shifted a lot in the past year.
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For 16 years, Maria Eunice has been Director of Food Nutrition for Alachua County Public Schools in Gainesville, FL. Her experience was put to the test this year, having to navigate feeding students during a 5-month shutdown of schools in her district.
Sara Supplee is the nutrition coordinator at Fridley Public Schools in the Twin Cities metro area. Her team serves around 3,000 students in the district between two elementary schools, one middle school, one high school, an alternative learning center and one community center.
Alex Molina has been Foodservice Director of the McAllen Independent School District since 2013. 87% of her students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, so participation during COVID-19 shutdowns remained very high.
Emma Anne Hallman was born for this. Raised by educators, she grew up knowing the importance of a strong school community. Now, as the Child Nutrition Director at Haleyville City School District in Haleyville, Alabama, Emma Anne and her team provide daily meals to about 1,700 students, and with over 60% of students getting free and reduced meals, those meals really count.
New Jersey natives are known for big, bold attitudes. Think Frank Sinatra. Think The Boss. Now you have a glimpse into the energy and enthusiasm of Crystal DeCaro. As the Food Service Director at Lacey Township School District in Ocean County, New Jersey, she had to pivot and adjust to keep her students fed during this difficult year. With the district serving a total of six schools and 4,100 students, what’s her secret ingredient to being such a superstar? Positivity and perseverance, of course
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Keyana Griffin, Nutrition Manager at Brimhall Elementary, Roseville, Minnesota
Keyana Griffin sees food as more than a source of nourishment. She views it as a way to connect, express love, and bring people together. That’s an amazing approach for any chef, but coming from a K-12 foodservice operator dealing with so many regulations, it’s even more impressive. During our interview, her commitment, passion, and enthusiasm were infectious as she shared stories about her decades-long life in foodservice that started in her late teens.
Jennifer Mullin, Foodservice Manager, Washington Township Public Schools; Sewell, New Jersey
In the bustling Washington Township Public Schools, one remarkable woman has been at the forefront of nourishing thousands of young minds: Jennifer Mullin, the foodservice manager who has dedicated herself to ensuring the well-being of the district's students through wholesome meals. From her beginnings as a self-described lunch lady to her instrumental role during the COVID-19 pandemic, Jennifer's unwavering passion for food and nutrition has left an indelible mark on the community.
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.”
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