Nutrition Directors Recognized for Leading Teams Through Thick & Thin

The national non-profit, School Nutrition Association (SNA), has awarded the 2020 Regional Directors of the Year, celebrating individuals for excellence in leadership and commitment to school meal programs that thrive under their direction each day. While the nomination process for these awards began before widespread COVID-19 school closures, the expansive efforts of school nutrition directors to manage current emergency feeding programs also deserve the accolades and honor these awards represent.

Directors across the country have continued to ensure that students in their district have access to healthy meals. Regional Directors of the Year are recognized from small and large districts, proving that it’s not the size of the district that determines its successful outcomes. These professionals excel through effective oversight of all aspects of foodservice operations, including budgeting, ordering, staffing, training, marketing and community outreach. Their love of students is matched by their incredible commitment to helping their community.

Jessica Shelly, SNS, student dining services director for Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS), OH, is the Mideast regional Director of the Year.

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Jessica Shelly was instrumental in adding salad bars to Cincinnati Public Schools (OH), like this one photographed at the Academy of World Languages in 2018.

When Ohio Governor Mike DeWine issued the COVID-19 stay-at-home order, Shelly and her team jumped into action immediately to ensure the 36,000 CPS students and their families have access to healthy meals. From March 17-April 24, CPS has served 140,000 healthy meals at 23 sites.

Over the past decade, Shelly has dedicated her time and energy to improving the school meal programs throughout the city. She completely restructured the breakfast and lunch programs, increasing student participation and improving overall efficiency. Implementation of a new point-of-sale system, better accountability and record keeping helped turn a $2.4 million deficit into a surplus of $11.2 million in the past five years.

Shelly also secured more than $15 million in grant funding to replace cooking equipment as well as purchase micro-green growing units, reimbursable meal vending machines, salad bars, breakfast kiosks and school nutrition education materials.

To cut food waste, Shelly encourages students to “take what they want, but eat what they take” while empowering them to customize their meals. The implementation of new menus, spice stations, garden salad bars, build-your-own stations, world culture cuisine days, plant-based options, hydration stations and new marketing tools have increased participation in high schools from 48 percent to 79 percent.

Student feedback has never been more positive, according to staff. Students and parents are encouraged to provide school meal feedback through student evaluation teams, pop-up menu tasting events and monthly surveys posted on the online menu system.

Throughout the year, she awards school teams with the Golden Ladle and Silver Spoodle. Weekly, she sends emails that highlight creative employee ideas and initiatives along with interesting facts about each employee. In an effort to share ideas and create a sense of community, she also offers a Manager Exchange Program for managers to shadow their colleagues.

Susan Murray, SNS, director of food and nutrition services for Nauset Public Schools, MA, the Northeast regional Director of the Year.

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Susan Murray prepares grab-and-go meals for students during school closures. Curbside pick-up is available at four locations in Nauset Public Schools (MA).

With 17 years of experience, Murray took on the director role about eight years ago and has turned a department that was facing a deficit of $200,000 a year into a profitable one. The school system is made up of five complex and different districts, so the first thing she did as director was create cohesion across locations. Murray updated the nutrition services website for parents, students and staff to receive wellness updates, nutritional and allergy information, interactive menus and links to various government assistant programs as additional reference. Murray created monthly newsletters for parents, to share tips on eating less processed foods, creating more scratch cooking options, using healthier recipes and incorporating local foods.

Murray added a number of programs to increase school meal participation. She implemented student taste-tests, wellness committees, Harvest of the Month program, Meatless Mondays, parent lunches, cafeteria composting and recycling, special food days and holiday celebrations.

Murray has created an educational and supportive environment for her staff. Her staff has had trainings on culinary skills, nutrition and leadership to enhance their knowledge as well as on customer service and professionalism. She also coordinates with the Recycling Committee to reduce food waste through recycling and composting, creating a product that can be used for athletic fields or sold to the public.

Amy Rouse, SNS, nutrition services director for the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District, AK, the Northwest regional Director of the Year.

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Amy Rouse helps pack 23 buses every morning that go out into the community to distribute breakfast and lunch at 44 locations amid school closures.

As the director for the past 13 years, Rouse has used her social media and marketing savvy to inform the community and successfully promote her school meal program. One of the first in Alaska to initiate online free and reduced price meal applications, Rouse incorporated interactive online menus and electronic production records. She has also supported other districts and the state agency in their move to electronic data systems. Rouse also maintains an engaging social media presence – highlighting program operations, nutrition services staff, holidays, celebrations, promotional events and new program initiatives. Social media plays a big part in sharing news about national and local celebrations, such as National School Lunch Week, National School Breakfast Week, African-American History Month, Alaska Grown Menus, taste tests and guest servers. Keeping her students engaged and excited, Rouse also holds student surveys for new menu items.

She believes in providing educational and training programs for her staff, encouraging her primary managerial staff to participate in state association networking and training opportunities. Professional standards are important to Rouse, who maintains a very structured staff training program during teacher in-service days. More than half of her sites have been awarded with the State of Alaska Food Safety Excellence (SAFE) food safety recognition program this year.

Rhonda Huffman, nutrition services supervisor for Roanoke County Public Schools, VA, the Southeast regional Director of the Year.

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Rhonda Huffman is overseeing a weekly average of 7,600 meals prepared for students to pick up at nine school locations around the district during COVID-19 closures.

With two decades of school foodservice experience, Huffman took over as supervisor five years ago and greatly improved the department, which was struggling with high deficits. Thanks to Huffman’s quick action and focus on adding breakfast serving options, the district went from serving an average of 80,000 breakfast meals to over 300,000 meals. The increase in breakfast sales through Second Chance Breakfast and grab-and-go breakfast has funded the purchase of laptops to make it easier to track meals. In addition to breakfast, Huffman has also added Summer Feeding Programs for some of the schools, with plans to continue expanding access within the district.

Reworking recipes to meet federal guidelines, Huffman continues to increase fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains in district meals, while also reducing fat, sugar and sodium levels. She initiated a new menu format focused on student-friendly and appetizing choices that still provide the nutritional value needed.

She is known by staff as respectful, supportive and expecting a high standard of professionalism. Huffman is a certified ServSafe trainer and has been teaching classes since 2005, including Nutrition 101 at the School Nutrition Association of Virginia’s State Conference in 2016. Huffman works with school board members, Student Advisory Council and district administration, communicating the important role school meals play in supporting students’ academics, attendance and behavior. She serves on the School Health Advisory Board, providing information on food allergy news, and on the Wellness Committee implementing guidelines for schools. In addition to promoting the school meal program within the school district, she also ventures into the community. She promotes the Summer Feeding Program, holds job fairs and coordinates cafeteria guests, including local firefighters and other service people.

Terri Jo Markham, director of nutrition services for Chanute Public Schools, KS, the Southwest regional Director of the Year.

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Terri Jo Markham helps hand out meals to students via 11 bus stops across the district during school closures. To keep staff safer, they are spread out at three different cafeteria kitchens to prepare food.

Markham has been a passionate advocate for school nutrition over the years, maintaining fiscal health in her department while providing the highest quality in the meals she serves. Markham negotiates with vendors and searches for top quality ingredients for her recipes. She listens to student feedback about school meals, makes adjustments, and works with her kitchen managers and staff to try new serving options. She also provides detailed information to parents and those in the community, to help inform eligible families about free and reduced price meals.

Markham participates in wellness events in the community and continues to proudly promote what her program does to feed students. She is in constant contact with local media about school nutrition initiatives, including the traveling wagon she had built to go to parks, swimming pools and other areas where children congregate to support the summer meal program.

Markham is excited to share what she’s learned with employees after attending training sessions. She offers training regularly, setting up in-service and back to school workshops, and hosting the State Child Nutrition Management Academy. She is highly regarded for how closely she works with building staff and administrators to ensure things run smoothly throughout the district. Markham also volunteers in her community, coaching cheerleading and helping to raise money for Relay For Life.

Ginger Jones, director of school nutrition for Deming Public Schools, NM, the West regional Director of the Year.

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Taking a quick mask break for this photo, Ginger Jones assists in serving 4,000 meals a day during school closures. Her district’s program offers school meals at 53 bus stops, 8 school sites, 3 daycares and one site in Mexico for students who live in the border town.

Over 20 years working in a district with a diverse population, Jones has made a positive impact, increasing daily meal participation from 5,000 to 17,000. Networking with district leaders has been essential to her success in increasing district participation. Over her career, Jones has implemented Breakfast After the Bell, Summer feeding and After School Snacks. She also initiated New Mexico Grown Fresh Fruit, Vegetable and the USDA Fresh Fruit and Vegetable programs. She started a Roadrunner Food Bank backpack program as well as district food pantries. Most recently, she has implemented mobile food trucks for summer feeding meal service.

As part of New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s Child Hunger Initiative “Preventing Child Hunger in NM,” Jones hopes to increase the use of mobile food trucks to expand Summer Feeding sites. Other efforts to narrow the gap of food insecurity in the area include utilizing leftover shelf stable food for the Backpack Program for weekend feeding, providing leftover hot meals during holiday breaks, and also offering a Supper Program.

Jones promotes and celebrate the work of her team through a monthly district newsletter, and department website, Facebook page and Twitter account, which keep the district, community and parents informed. She advocates for child nutrition and health throughout the community, helping to host a dental service event for children, attending community organization meetings and serving on numerous community committees. She provides 66 school nutrition employees with monthly training on everything from technical skills to work-time management. She uses various forms of technology to ensure her team is knowledgeable in federal, state and district regulations, policies and procedures. As many of her employees are Spanish-speaking, she provides translation services at all trainings to guarantee all employees have an equal opportunity to learn. Therefore, she ensures compliance is met in all areas. She encourages her team to think outside of the box understanding the importance of good nutrition and the effect it has on academic performance.

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