National Award Winners Celebrated for School Lunch Hero Day

There’s no stopping the non-profit School Nutrition Association (SNA) from celebrating its Director, Manager and Employee of the Year national award winners! During the first-ever virtual event, “Our Heroes: Celebrating the 2021 SNA Award Winners” on May 5, Jarrett J. Krosoczka, author/illustrator of the LUNCH LADY graphic novel series, joined SNA President Reggie Ross, SNS, in revealing the national award winners and celebrating all school lunch heroes.

These annual awards recognize the dedication and outstanding commitment of school nutrition professionals from around the country who have gone above and beyond the call of duty for their students and school meal programs. Countless school nutrition professionals stepped up and worked their magic to ensure children had access to healthy meals during COVID-19 school closures and transitions between remote and in-person learning. Three national award winners and 13 regional award winners will be celebrated in conjunction with an appreciation campaign for those widespread efforts on School Lunch Hero Day (SLHD) on Friday, May 7.

From the nominations received, state winners were selected and then regional winners were determined through blind review process. Of the 13 regional winners this spring, the three national winners were chosen for their exemplary service during this challenging time of atypical school meal program operations.

SNA recognizes Anna Apoian of California as the Director of the Year, Amber Ott-Underdown of Pennsylvania as Manager of the Year and Christine Edelstein-Dodds of Massachusetts as Employee of the Year. These three national winners are recognized as heroes in their districts, with pride in their profession and dedication to their students’ health and to the success of their school meal programs.

Anna Apoian, 2021 National Director of the Year.

Anna Apoian, MPA, RD, SNS, food service director for Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District (CA) has earned the Director of the Year Award. When the pandemic hit, Apoian led her team in re-opening schools for meal distribution as the county guidelines changed. She was first to start pantry style meal distribution with assistance from the superintendents, executive board administrators, board members, local churches, and police in distributing meals at two drive-up locations. More than 5,000 households in the area benefited from this outreach. Prior to the pandemic at a previous district, she and her team installed deli bars for made-to-order sandwiches and salads, a panini room for hot sandwiches and a pizza oven where students see the pizza being baked. Her students also enjoy scratch-made signature salsas and dressings for produce bars. She also directed a Breakfast-in-the-Classroom program, which continues to serve 90 percent of students. At her current district, freshly prepared burritos, breakfast sandwiches and smoothie bowls have helped increase participation by 20 percent. Apoian creates new recipes to be more inclusive of students’ special dietary restrictions, including no-bake energy bites for a vegan meal entrée and the Green Monster smoothie. Her menu focus is on plant-forward, while continuing to serve 100 percent USDA beef and antibiotic free poultry, in healthful portions. In her tenure, Apoian has been committed to improving communication and general wellness in her community. She hired parent-to-parent nutrition educators, created a sustaining employee wellness program, provided physical activity trainings for elementary teachers by professional trainers, began Active Recess at eight elementary school sites, updated wellness policies and has been in charge of the Wellness Committees since 2004. She also started “Your Chew,” a monthly newsletter for employees. To keep parents involved and updated, Apoian attends district level parent meetings quarterly and uses feedback to make adjustments to menu options. 

Amber Ott-Underdown, 2021 National Manager of the Year.

Amber Ott-Underdown, cafeteria manager at Upper Bucks County Technical School (PA) has earned the Manager of the Year Award. Ott-Underdown, a graduate of the school where she now works, has consistently increased school lunch participation each year, in part by converting the cafeteria to mostly scratch cooking. Students’ favorites now include chili, chicken cheesesteak burritos, scratch mashed potatoes and roasted chicken on salads, sandwiches and soups. The monthly “Try It Tuesdays” has become a favorite day where students try a small portion of a new scratch-made item. Try It Tuesdays are the reason the school now offers chicken teriyaki bowls, smoked BBQ pork sandwiches and French toast casserole. Ott-Underdown, a graduate of the school where she now works, has consistently increased school lunch participation each year, in part by converting the cafeteria to mostly scratch cooking. Students’ favorites now include chili, chicken cheesesteak burritos, scratch mashed potatoes and roasted chicken on salads, sandwiches and soups. The monthly “Try It Tuesdays” has become a favorite day where students try a small portion of a new scratch-made item. Try It Tuesdays are the reason the school now offers chicken teriyaki bowls, smoked BBQ pork sandwiches and French toast casserole. Ott-Underdown took over formerly defunct fundraisers and now plans, coordinates and executes Breakfast with Santa and Breakfast with Easter Bunny every year. The events raise funds for the Future Farmers of America (FFA) association, which also benefits her students.

Christine Edelstein-Dodds, 2021 National Employee of the Year.

Christine Edelstein-Dodds, assistant cook at Vincent Igo Elementary School in Foxborough Public Schools (MA) has earned the Employee of the Year Award. Edelstein-Dodds greets students by name with her bright and happy smile. She fosters a safe environment for students that parents can trust, anticipating special needs and communicating about specific allergies with the kitchen manager, lunch monitors and school nurse. Edelstein-Dodds makes sure fruit and vegetable options are always available for students to eat and enjoy, even catering to her pickiest eaters to ensure they’re well nourished. She is known for her theme day costumes, novelty socks and facemasks, and often writes whimsical and positive messages on fruit, much to the delight of students. She connects with students outside the cafeteria as well, whether as mystery reader during Reading Week events or in her former role as a youth soccer coach. Edelstein-Dodds takes full advantage of available training and learning opportunities, continuously exceeding the required amount of annual training hours. Her supervisors say that she consistently applies new things she’s learned at training to her job. She brings valuable feedback, practical input and good suggestions to meetings and always strives to help. Edelstein-Dodds has participated in the SNA Mass Walk for Hunger team and is a positive role model of wellness, regularly running in 5Ks and rarely taking sick time.

During “Our Heroes: Celebrating the 2021 SNA Award Winners”, SNA also recognized the following regional award winners.

Employee of the Year:

  • Mideast: Marcia Rosa, Elkton High School, Maryland
  • Midwest:  Debra Root, Falcon Heights Elementary School, Minnesota
  • Northeast: Christine Edelstein-Dodds, Vincent M. Igo Elementary School, Massachusetts (National Winner)
  • Southeast: Jennifer Graham, Matthew Arthur Elementary School, Georgia
  • West: Anna King, Spring City Elementary School, Utah

Manager of the Year: 

  • Mideast: Tina Callahan, Edison Elementary School, Indiana
  • Midwest: Allison Grabow, Will-Moore Elementary School, North Dakota
  • Northeast: Amber Ott-Underdown, Upper Bucks County Technical School, Pennsylvania (National Winner)
  • Southeast: Starr Grimes, Navarre High School, Florida
  • West: Kamie Boren, Silver Ridge Elementary School, Utah

Director of the Year:

  • Mideast: Kelly Minnick, SNS, ESC of the Western Reserve, Ohio
  • Midwest: Stacy Koppen, MS, RD, SNS, Saint Paul Public Schools, Minnesota
  • Southwest: Nadine Mann, East Baton Rouge Parish School System, Louisiana
  • West: Anna Apoian, MPA, RD, SNS, Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District, California (National Winner)
  • Northeast: Curtistine Walker, M.Ed, Pittsburgh Public Schools, Pennsylvania
  • Southeast: Melinda Bonner, MBA, RD, SNS, Hoover City Schools, Alabama

SNA continues to work 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 can show their appreciation with thanks, cards and recognition for their cafeteria staff. Visit www.SchoolLunchHeroDay.com for more information.

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