Managers of the Year Recognized For Dedication to Students

Adjusting school foodservice to emergency feeding operations following COVID-19 school closures, managers of school cafeterias are using their multitasking skills to ensure students have access to healthy meals.  In recognition of their outstanding hard work and dedication, the national, non-profit School Nutrition Association (SNA) has awarded the 2020 Regional Managers of the Year, considered the highest honor a school nutrition manager can earn. The award recognizes cafeteria managers who have demonstrated dedication and ingenuity to improve his or her school meal program.

The nomination process for these awards began before widespread COVID-19 school closures, and these nutrition managers deserve to be recognized for their persistence and ingenuity to keep operations running smoothly in each of their schools.

Susan Parsons, cafeteria manager at Shady Spring Middle School, WV, the Mideast regional Manager of the Year.

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Susan Parsons shows how packaged meals are refrigerated and ready to be delivered to students during school closures.

Known for spreading positivity whenever she enters the kitchen, Parsons expects her staff to extend that sentiment to students and colleagues throughout the day. Working with administration and her staff, she cheerfully took on new initiatives for her school, including the implementation of Grab N’ Go Breakfast. Participation in breakfast has exceeded expectations after Parsons started offering a traditional morning breakfast for students on-the-go, in addition to kiosk stations for those students leaving first period.

Parsons thinks outside the box, serving alternative options to satisfy students with different taste preferences. She speaks with students daily to get ideas for new menu items. After attending a scratch cooking training, she brought back ideas and resources for her staff to amplify the great lunch menus the school already offered. She also held students taste tests during the school wellness fair, where they could sample breakfast and lunch menu options and provide feedback. She goes above and beyond in her school duties, volunteering throughout the district to represent the department. Parsons sits on the Service Personnel Committee where she is the voice for all cooks. She’s integral in the planning of training classes for 104 school cooks and all service positions in the county. Over the years, Parsons has served as the girl’s volleyball coach, leader of the school’s 4H Club and Cooking Club, and supervised after-school programs, which provide supper or snack meals. According to her colleagues, she is always willing to assist with projects in the county, helping out with graduation, various fundraisers and club events.

Parsons became an SNA member in 2017 and has volunteered with West Virginia SNA, serving as Region Five chair and Wellness Committee chair. She was single-handedly responsible for recruiting 18 new SNA members in 2019. She created a fundraising committee to help offset the costs of sending county SNA members to local and national training and networking events. Enthusiastic to promote the work of school nutrition professionals, Parsons works closely to coordinate fall and spring conferences and is known for her strong leadership, planning monthly meetings, organizing elections and promoting skills training.

Michelle Durenberger, foodservice manager at Shannon Park Elementary, MN, the Midwest regional Manager of the Year.

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Michelle Durenberger presents student Eva Nowlin with an award during National School Breakfast Week 2020.

With credit to Durenberger’s work ethic, character and management style, her school is one of the most sought-after places for nutrition professionals to work. She brings organizational skills to the position and tackles every task with a smile, from coordinating students’ specialty diet needs to preparing daily task lists and food and supply needs. Durenberger expects high quality standards for food served in her kitchen and encourages staff to get creative with color and serving styles. Knowing that most elementary school students eat with their eyes, she follows several blogs to help brainstorm new ways to catch her students’ attention.

To promote new menu items and get students excited, she often displays samples, offers taste tests and puts up flyers. She has also visited first-grade classes to talk about her job at the school, child nutrition, and how to build a healthy school lunch tray; which helps students better understand the importance of food group balance. Durenberger has maintained successful breakfast and lunch programs by promoting school meals to students and parents. During open house, she organizes a mock serving line with meal samples presented as they are for students to show parents the kinds of meals offered and better prepare students to navigate through cafeteria lines. Three of her food service employees have become managers in the district, in part through her guidance and assurance.

Durenberger promotes upcoming events, classes and trainings to her staff, encouraging them to take part in as many continuing education opportunities as possible. Her kitchen has become the first stop for many new hires as she fosters an ideal environment for training. Durenberger has been an SNA member since 1996 and volunteers her time in numerous capacities. She has held the position of her local Minnesota SNA (MSNA) chapter secretary for 15 years. She is patient and supportive toward those wanting to become members of MSNA and encourages their involvement.

Jane Rice, cook manager at Charles G. Taylor Elementary in Foxborough, MA,the Northeast regional Manager of the Year.0-1.jpeg

Rice brings a sense of excitement and fun through theme days like “Beach Day” and “Talk Like A Pirate Day.” Staff and students wear costumes, the cafeteria and serving lines are decorated and special menu items are featured. She invites special guests from the community to serve students their meals. An advocate for students with special dietary needs, Rice loves to try new recipes and identify healthy options for students with celiac disease, dairy and other allergies.

She presents to kindergarten parents at the opening of school each year, answering questions and helping them navigate the lunchroom service lines. She often volunteers at Parent Teacher Organization events and speaks at meetings to give parents a better idea of how the school meal programs work for their children.

For years, Rice has run an after-school and summer school enrichment cooking class for students, teaching how to make personal pizzas, cinnamon buns, smoothies, and reverse chocolate strawberries. Rice insists on “role switching” with her assistant cooks, allowing them a chance to build confidence and experience a day running the kitchen. Having a small kitchen of three employees, she understands the need for cross training. Rice is also very involved in her local SNA chapter, receiving the “Golden Spatula” award from the chapter for her service. In addition to SNA, she volunteers as a Girl Scout Troop leader for two troops, cooks at the Boy Scout Pancake Breakfast and Booster Club’s Touch Down Breakfast and works at the Community Farm Stand weekly during the summer.

Linda Harrelson, cafeteria manager at Orofino Elementary School, ID, the Northwest regional Manager of the Year.unnamed-2.jpg

With 27 years in school nutrition, Harrelson began as a dishwasher and this year celebrates 20 years as a manager. Over two decades, she was instrumental in implementing a Breakfast in the Classroom program resulting in a 260 percent increase in breakfast participation among her students. Always thoughtful of students’ needs, Harrelson bakes special items for those with dietary restrictions so they don’t feel left out. To help celebrate the Student of the Month, she hosts a “Star Breakfast” for the student and their parents.

Harrelson goes above and beyond her normal duties, helping her director monitor the district storeroom by checking walk-in temperatures daily, documenting logs and receiving food. Harrelson has a passion for making sure no one in her community goes hungry, from infants and four-legged friends to service men and women. She has volunteered to help pregnancy crisis centers, VFWs, health rehab centers, local food banks and animal shelters, as well as victims of the 2015 local wildfires. She is dedicated to children’s mental and physical health, working to collect money for scholarships that send bereaved children to a Youth Summer Camp. As president of her local SNA chapter, Harrelson coordinates educational trainings and meetings. She has led demos at chapter meetings on how to operate a fire extinguisher, prepare for food allergies, administer epi pens, provide personal care through massages, practice self-protection, cook with legumes, maintain mental health and proper baking techniques. She ensures her staff attends all staff development trainings and has provided lunch for district attendees during some of these meetings.

Harrelson was tapped to mentor many of the new hires when the district opened a new kitchen. She is always willing to share from her years of experience working with foodservice staff as well as community members. In addition to serving as president of her local chapter, Harrelson has held the positions of SNA of Idaho president, vice president, secretary and membership chair. She has served as area representative for multiple terms for the state board and is first to attend chapter field trips, or farm to school tours and participate in community projects. She holds certificate classes and encourages her staff to continue to seek training and educational opportunities.

Christi Brown, a multi-site kitchen manager at Adams 12 Five Star Schools, CO, the Southwest regional Manager of the Year.

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Safety first for Christi Brown as she washes and packs fresh fruit for school meals.

Brown juggles the role of manager of three kitchens in her district’s Silver Hills Middle School, Westview Elementary School and Independence Academy with expertise and skill. She leads by example, becoming the first kitchen manager to pass the School Nutrition Specialist exam and creating lesson plans to help staff members prepare and gain their certification.

Brown enjoys celebrating the successes of her staff and students. She holds quarterly breakfast events for students who excel in academics, inviting community members to celebrate and enjoy a healthy warm breakfast together. Brown is in tune to her students’ unique needs and developed initiatives to better serve the children most as risk of missing school meals. Since her schools only offered traditional breakfast in the cafeteria, she created a “Bag-A-Breakfast” program, allowing students who arrive late to access a healthy breakfast. This effort has helped about 50 students a day who would miss out on a nutritional start to their day because of late arrivals. She recently started Share Tables after recognizing student concerns about food waste in her cafeterias. Brown helped communicate with students and staff around the new program and educated them on the positive impact of reducing food waste for the nutrition services program and for the environment.

Brown is proud of her school nutrition programs and enjoys finding new ways to promote their success and importance. At Back to School nights, she greets parents and students with school lunch and breakfast information to share. As a member of the Menu and Advisory Committee, Brown created a new ordering system to cut back on over-orders. When training new managers, the district has received feedback that this new capability on order guides is the most valuable. Brown has been a member of SNA for nine years and encourages her staff to participate in SNA continuing education and training opportunities to advance their career. She has been instrumental in guiding five cook cashiers to advance to assistant managers, managers and an area supervisor at the district level. Brown takes great pride in her staff and supporting them to succeed and grow. Her passion and talent have extended beyond her kitchens. Brown joins district kitchen managers in supporting the Food Bank Program, freezing leftover school entrees into servings for families in need.

Jeannette Turpin, lunch manager at Spring City Elementary School, UT, the West regional Manager of the Year.unnamed-5.jpg

For 26 years in North Sanpete Schools, Turpin has prioritized her students’ health and happiness. When buses or a child arrive late, she will go out of her way to get them a healthy breakfast. Turpin personally prepares many of the dairy-free, gluten-free, low-carb and other specialty meals for students with dietary restrictions and food allergies. She has done a lot of research through the years, ensuring these meals meet requirements but still taste delicious for her students.

Turpin uses her creativity and decorating skills to foster a fun and festive environment for her students and staff. She invites parents, younger siblings of her students, teachers and administration to join students in the cafeteria, creating a comfortable space for lunch. She has been commended for her communication with parents and guardians, some crediting her program’s success to her unique way of connecting with families and students. She creates menus for parents and will follow up to determine if their children have liked the menu items. Turpin is a natural leader; she encourages her staff to attend trainings and meetings, giving them opportunities for professional development and networking.

She has been a member of SNA since 1994, when her career began in school foodservice. She has served as chapter secretary, vice president and president over the years. In those roles, Turpin has organized fundraisers, helped plan and prepare for area meetings, and worked with chapter members on service projects to the community. Turpin promotes the idea of SNA involvement and has gone with her staff to various training and certification sessions at their state conference.

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