In Challenging Year, School Meal Program Directors Shine Bright

Celebrating excellence in leadership and commitment to oversee thriving school meal programs, the national non-profit School Nutrition Association (SNA) has awarded 2021 Regional Directors of the Year. These dedicated individuals led expansive efforts to manage emergency feeding programs during COVID-19 and transition meal service between remote, hybrid and in-person learning models to ensure students’ access to healthy meals.

School nutrition professionals across the country are being recognized as part of School Lunch Hero Day on May 7, 2021, for their continued efforts to support families and communities during the pandemic. These award winners exemplify above-and-beyond efforts to nourish students, from personally delivering meals to students’ homes and creating food truck service to better service neighborhoods to maintaining smooth operations through multiple school opening and closing transitions. SNA regional Directors of the Year are recognized from small and large districts for their effective oversight of all aspects of foodservice operations, including budgeting, ordering, staffing, training, marketing and community outreach.

Kelly Minnick, SNS, director of nutrition services for the Educational Service Center of the Western Reserve, OH, the Mideast regional Director of the Year.

Kelly Minnick, Mideast regional Director of the Year.

In addition to the wealth of knowledge gained through her 30 years of experience, Minnick exudes both the character and the drive needed to oversee meal services for five school districts. Each district presents a different challenge and Minnick guides everything from renovations and repairs to getting financials on track. Prior to the pandemic, Minnick would engage with students during meal service to get their feedback. The interactions often led to the inclusion of new menu options and increased student meal participation. Minnick’s interpersonal skills have won over staff and students alike. She collaborates with her staff to organize fun cafeteria events for National School Breakfast Week and National School Lunch Week with contests, new foods and guest servers.

Minnick has also assisted neighboring districts with their financial struggles, turning deficits into positive balances and creating breakfast and lunch programs from scratch. In another district, she saw the need to expand meal service during summer months and implemented a food truck, serving up to 11,000 meals to children each summer. The community knows this food truck as “The Lunch Box” which received the Children’s Hunger Alliance’s award for the 2016 Summer Program of the Year.

Minnick coordinates an annual back-to-school skills training for all of her districts, offering networking opportunities for more than 60 school nutrition professionals. She sets up a mini food show for vendors to showcase new menu items and connect directly with the frontline workers. Neighboring districts ask for her assistance training new staff, including mentoring new directors on menu development, financial analysis, staffing and department efficiencies for cost savings. A part of the district’s COVID Response Committee, Minnick helped coordinate the meal distribution needed to prevent children from going hungry. She even created and maintains social media accounts for the school meal program to help promote menus and initiatives among administrators and families.

Stacy Koppen, SNS, MS, RD, LD, Director of Nutrition for Saint Paul Public Schools, MN the Midwest Regional Director of the Year.

Stacy Koppen, the Midwest Regional Director of the Year.

Koppen led efforts to rebound the nutrition program from financial deficit, and they are now able to invest in new equipment. She has used her business savvy and communications skills to work with various groups in the district and close program gaps. She helped create a unique zero hunger and zero waste initiative, which collected extensive data that could also be used to make operational improvements to the nutrition program.

When the pandemic started and schools closed in-person learning, Koppen led her team to work with the transportation department and create a completely new home meal delivery operation for local children. The initiative also ensured full-time employment for nutrition services staff, bus drivers and teacher assistants. She also secured a grant to pay every employee an extra three dollars an hour for hazard pay. Her district served more than 17,000,000 meals over the pandemic, the most successful direct-to-door delivery program in the state.

Koppen has cultivated a positive work environment, improving training programs, encouraging continued education for employees, and she brought a new level of quality customer service for students and school staff. She commended staff efforts during COVID-19 shutdowns and encouraged them to go beyond their previously typical day-to-day tasks. Creating these new opportunities had an invaluable impact on the self-esteem of her staff and colleagues. She received widespread praise for efforts to be inclusive, including her advocacy to incorporate culturally relevant foods like red lentils and white rice for the district’s large Karen (Southeast Asian), Somali and African American populations. Working with a marketing company, Koppen helped implement a campaign featuring fun and engaging posters to promote the benefits of second chance breakfast, which resulted in increased participation. She dedicated her own time working with a graphic artist to create and launch an exciting new SPPS-specific version of School Lunch Hero Day that used the likeness of department employees to depict the real School Lunch Heroes.

Curtistine Walker, M.Ed, director of food services for Pittsburgh Public Schools, PA, the Northeast regional Director of the Year.

Curtistine Walker, the Northeast regional Director of the Year.

For the past eight years, Walker has changed the school meals landscape of not only her district, but of the entire state. Being the first in Pennsylvania to pilot the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) made it possible for over 24,000 students in her district to have access to nutritious meals, regardless of income, and spurred other districts to follow suit. CEP helped eliminate any stigma associated with free/reduced meal participation and has had a positive impact on student academic success.

Walker works closely with organizations in the community to strengthen the department goal of reaching all hungry children. She has partnered with Grow Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh Food Policy Council, Children’s Hospital Healthy Schools Program, and industry partners such as American Dairy Association, to create educational and exciting events and contests. Her supervisory staff’s fresh ideas for National School Breakfast Week and efforts to expand access, such as grab and go breakfast, have resulted in a 30 percent increase in breakfast participation across the 54 schools since her tenure began. The department has a partnership with 412 Food Rescue to prevent waste and donate extra food safely to the community.

Walker worked with her supervisory staff to initiate the use of the CACFP At-Risk programming to provide nutritious meals and snacks in afterschool programs. They also launched a successful Summer Food Service Program and encouraged the creation of the district staff and student wellness policy. The department’s Summer Food Service Program has provided meals to over 74 sites, which provide healthy meals to children throughout the city.

Walker and the department’s registered dietitian partnered with the Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council to hear student feedback on menu offerings and service, leading to various changes and increased participation. With her superintendent, Walker committed to further enhance the food service program through implementation of farm-to school initiatives, school gardens, increased out-of-school programs and alternative breakfast access options for all students.

Melinda Bonner, MBA, RD, SNS, director of food and nutrition services for Hoover City Schools, AL, the Southeast regional Director of the Year.

Melinda Bonner, the Southeast regional Director of the Year.

With 35 years of food and nutrition service experience, and 15 years of that in schools, Bonner took over as director eight years ago and restructured the Hoover City Schools child nutrition department. She led changes to help increase efficiency and productivity of cafeterias. Bonner streamlined elementary school serving lines, added high school coffee shops offering grab-n-go Smart Snacks and refrigerated vending machines at various locations throughout the campus, as well as implementing a Healthy Classroom Snack Program. Students can use their child nutrition program accounts at any of these locations, which greatly increased school meal access. Bonner created ways to improve participation elsewhere in the district, including converting a retired school bus to a school meal food truck called “Meals In Motion.”

In order to attract students and make the cafeteria more fun, Bonner has encouraged managers to decorate, dress up in costume and offer activities during National School Lunch and Breakfast Weeks and food themed days. Decorations, bulletin board supplies and resources are provided to the school cafeteria managers in conjunction with the special menus to increase student engagement.

Bonner is always looking for ways to educate her staff and give them new training opportunities, coordinating guest speakers and connecting members with experts to teach them new skills. She believes promoting child nutrition program benefits for district students is an important part of their job. Every year during National School Lunch Week, Bonner invites the mayor, city council, school board and superintendent to serve meals in the 16 schools of the district. This provides an opportunity to share a firsthand look at the federal requirements and program mandates, a great educational opportunity to those who don’t work in foodservice.

Nadine Mann, PhD, RD, LDN, SNS, chief financial director for the Child Nutrition Program at East Baton Rouge Parish School System, LA, the Southwest regional Director of the Year.

Nadine Mann, Southwest regional Director of the Year

With more than 40 years of experience in school nutrition, Mann has kept her child nutrition program on the cutting edge. She was the first to implement many child nutrition initiatives now commonplace in the state of Louisiana and across the nation. In the 1990s, she worked with a software vendor to develop the scanning of applications for meal benefits, she helped develop a solid waste management and recycling program and led the only district in LA to implement Provision 2 and serve breakfast to participating students at no charge. Mann also led the way in implementing reimbursable meal vending, a supper program and Breakfast in the Classroom (BIC).

During the pandemic, Mann has been involved with various local initiatives, including the Gardere Initiative which promotes literacy in a city housing project and the transformation of the Gardere community. In the parish, she coordinated the set-up of sites to distribute USDA meal boxes (800 count) each week during the 2020 summer. From April 2020 to August 2020, boxed meals were distributed weekly at 25 schools, resulting in 4.1 million meals distributed to children.

Mann coordinates successful staff training for all 450 district employees in one location toprovide education on topics such sanitation, customer service and safety. She has worked with the Governor’s office and the First Lady to host Breakfast in the Classroom and No Kid Hungry promotions to kick off state campaigns.

Mann has attended and presented at various SNA conferences every year between 1993-2019, including Annual National Conference, leadership conferences, Legislative Action Conference and School Nutrition Industry Conference. Mann plans to secure membership next school year for all district child nutrition program employees. Her advice and insights have been published in various articles over the years, including research journal articles about emergency preparedness for child nutrition programs during hurricanes Rita and Katrina, and safety, sanitation and solid waste management. 

SNA has teamed up with Jarrett J. Krosoczka, author and illustrator of the popular LUNCH LADY graphic novel series, and Random House Children’s Books to celebrate all of America’s school nutrition professionals through School Lunch Hero Day, on Friday, May 7. Students, faculty and parents across the country will show their appreciation with thanks, cards and recognition for their cafeteria staff. Visit www.SchoolLunchHeroDay.com for more information.

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