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.
During the pandemic, the times called for extraordinary measures, and Tonya answered by going above and beyond her regular duties. When students shifted to at-home learning, she and her team went to where the students were to ensure each child had a nutritious meal while at home. Since they knew the meals the school provided were sometimes the only food the kids might receive, they knocked on doors and even worked on off-days and weekends. Like a true hero, she says of the efforts, “We were in the heart of the community during the pandemic — daily. It was lots of work, but we didn’t complain. No one made us do it. It was a heartfelt thing for us to do.”
Anita Suttle, the child nutrition director for the Anniston school district, came to Tonya with the idea of rebranding the whole program by experimenting with different foods to determine what resonated best with students. She describes Tonya’s efforts by saying, “Tonya was all hands on deck. She took the idea and ran with it. I promise you, I’ve never seen anything like it. Her work, heart and compassion are the definition of love. She is amazing. She has taken this program to a whole other level. She is an asset beyond words. I feel blessed.”
Tonya’s dedication to enriching lives extends beyond the kitchen and lunchroom. She describes a time when a student was “an angry little child, but all he needed was love.” The boy was being picked on because of his shoes and clothes. Tonya organized her coworkers and staff to help fund an entire new wardrobe for him so he’d be happy about coming to school. That small act of kindness will no doubt have a lasting effect on his life.
Tonya’s TipsIt’s not surprising that Tonya’s advice is focused on making students happy, but she takes a unique, creative approach that’s often not found in school cafeterias. She explains, “Kids eat with their eyes, so I make sure to make the food look good.”
Classic choices such as cereals, cereal bars, yogurts, Pillsbury™ Individually Wrapped Cheesy Pull-Aparts and Pillsbury™ Mini Cinnis are always a hit with the students, but Tonya takes special care to ensure every item is balanced with other offerings to make a complete, nutritious meal. It’s just another example of how she looks after every child as if they were her own.
By establishing true, authentic relationships with the students she serves, Tonya is able to craft menus loved by all. She isn’t content to simply serve up what’s on hand. She visits the cafeteria to talk with kids and find out what’s working and what isn’t. She even has a suggestion box to learn more about their preferences and what they’d like to see more of. She explains how she’s in constant conversation with the kids. Tonya will often wait until the students are finished eating, observe what’s left on their trays and then ask them why they didn’t eat certain items.
Part of creating a home-away-from-home environment for kids and staff includes making everyone feel special. Tonya does this by celebrating everyone’s birthday with a treat. She also spoke about a favorite moment from the previous year where she made a special birthday lunch for their school’s principal that he enjoyed alongside the children, bringing a few tears to his eyes.
Follow along with Tonya and the Anniston Middle School to see what other exciting ideas they come up with to put smiles on their students’ faces.
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