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.”
One of those major transitions came in 2020 when the Maple River School District passed a
referendum to consolidate their four smaller schools into one building. With the consolidation,
Heather was faced with the challenge of a using just a single cafeteria facility to serve all her students. Though chaotic at times, Heather quickly figured out how to manage the varying ages of the district’s students and created a functional system during the two-hour feeding period. Her efforts have ensured students have a positive dining experience, regardless of their age. Jen Strehlo, a lead cook on Heather’s team says how, “She always has a positive attitude with the motivation to keep pushing through each day and making a difference.”
This diversity of age groups also poses unique challenges in providing meal programs that meet different nutritional requirements. Heather emphasizes the importance of staying focused, communicating with staff, and educating them on various meal programs to ensure every student receives the nutrients they need to learn and grow.
After navigating such an epic organizational shift, Heather undertook yet another unique project to boost student participation. By shifting to offer restaurant-like experiences, she introduced innovative ideas to the cafeteria based on popular fast-casual chains. On top of that, she began offering bento boxes. These choices helped overcome pickiness among students, making it easier for them to choose healthier options.
Heather also created a choose-your-own-ingredients bar like those popularized by Chipotle. As if that weren’t enough, students and staff can pre-order their custom meals using a Google spreadsheet menu of soups, salads, and sandwiches. The addition of these transportable options proved valuable during and after the pandemic.
Heather's team includes individuals with a variety of foodservice backgrounds, enhancing the school’s ability to create diverse and appealing meals. Leveraging this expertise, they make a variety of meals from scratch. The team takes pride in their ability to replicate popular items, such as Casey's Breakfast Pizza, which has quickly become a student favorite. Additionally, they offer fresh-made smoothies and parfaits to entice high schoolers who might otherwise skip breakfast.
In addition to custom and made-from-scratch choices, Heather and her team rely on a bevy of choices from General Mills such as Yoplait® ParfaitPro®, various individually wrapped items, cereal cups, and other snacking options.
Heather's passion for child nutrition shines through in her interactions with students. She loves being out on the serving line, observing what kids enjoy or dislike and providing them with hearty, nutritious meals. Engaging with the students allows her to hear about their day and what they appreciate about lunchtime. Ensuring every student has access to a healthy meal and the necessary nutrients to thrive is her top priority. “The days I get to walk around and talk to the students is what keeps me in child nutrition,” Heather says. “Seeing those kids and knowing that we’re helping them have a healthy day is what it’s all about.”
Those interactions expand beyond the school cafeteria and into her community. Heather leads so many different efforts for special events, it’s hard to list them all. Her teams support donuts and coffee for Veterans Day, cinnamon rolls for Saturday sports tournaments, fresh baked cookies to sell in the concession stand at sports events, pancake breakfast fundraisers… You name it, they've probably done it. “I have done so many different events over the years that they just become natural,” Heather says. “I don't really think of them as a big deal. They're just something you do!”
As a leader, Heather acknowledges the importance of her awesome staff members, recognizing that everyone in the district, including teachers and foodservice personnel, plays a vital role in supporting the well-being of the students. Shelly Berndt, another lead cook, said, “Heather is willing to hear all ideas and gives pretty much anything a shot. She encourages us to step outside the box and try new things.”
It was inspiring to learn about Heather Ehlke and all the amazing things she has accomplished for Maple River Schools. Her ambition and drive were infectious. We wish her and her entire district the very best of luck as they continually adapt, improve, and excel.
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