School Nutrition Employees Recognized for Their Efforts

Whether handing out lunches in the rain or driving to student homes to drop off a week’s worth of school meals, school nutrition employees have truly gone above and beyond their typical duties this past year to ensure children are nourished and ready to learn. The national, non-profit School Nutrition Association (SNA) received hundreds of nominations of stellar cafeteria professionals and awarded five Regional Employees of the Year. The award was created to recognize outstanding school nutrition employees who positively influence the quality of school meals through exemplary customer service. Meet the 2021 winners, who will be celebrated together with colleagues across the country as part of School Lunch Hero Day on May 7, 2021:

Marcia Rosa, kitchen assistant at Elkton High School in Cecil County Public Schools, MD, the Mideast regional Employee of the Year.

Marcia Rosa, the Mideast regional Employee of the Year, packing school buses full of school meals that will then be distributed around town.

Even if other lines are shorter, students will wait in line to see Rosa – a testament to the kindness and care she shows them. Out of three cafeteria lines, she usually serves about half of the day’s lunches and more than three-quarters of a la carte sales. She helped implement more grab-and-go options and loves to try new products in her line. When the school added a smoothie machine, Rosa walked around the cafeteria handing out free samples of the different flavors to entice more participants and future sales.

During the pandemic, she immediately stepped up to ensure children in the community had access to healthy school meals. She worked to package meals for families to pick up, personally deliver meals to homes and even ride the bus to deliver to food insecure neighborhoods.

Her supervisors describe her as irreplaceable and a definite leader in her school. She creates a positive environment for co-workers, always willing to lend a helping hand and patiently training new hires. Rosa goes out of her way to promote the meal program to school staff, letting them know about new entrees, reminding them when their favorite lunch is on the menu and answering questions.

Rosa joined SNA to increase her level of professionalism and continue her education and training. She enjoys networking with fellow school nutrition professionals and learning from others in the field.

Debra Root, Nutrition Service Assistant at Falcon Heights Elementary School in Roseville Area Schools, MN, the Midwest regional Employee of the Year.

Debra Root, the Midwest regional Employee of the Year, shows off her meal packing skills for curbside pickup distribution.

For 27 years, Root has been taking care of students’ needs, particularly those with special dietary needs or those students who are just having a bad day. Her smiling face, before mask wearing days, was a comforting welcome to students as they entered the cafeteria each day.

She has been instrumental in creating attractive, pre-plated meals for staff while also increasing grab-n-go meals at the school. Root has become a historian of sorts, capturing school programs, conferences and now during the pandemic with her camera. Her pictures have been used on the district’s Facebook and Instagram pages to help advertise available food boxes and highlight the staff’s hard work.

A leader among her Nutrition Service Assistants, Root encourages staff to grow professionally, helping to train new staff and take continued training courses. She is flexible and willing to lend a helping hand, stepping in where needed and floating to different schools to help ensure proper staffing coverage. Supervisors describe her as reliable, steadfast and caring.

“Debra’s dedication to her students and colleagues makes her an exemplary candidate for this special award,” said SNA President Reginald Ross, SNS. “Her longevity in the field shows her passion for school nutrition and for ensuring that no child in her community goes hungry.”

Root serves as the district’s unofficial SNA liaison, helping staff register for the SNA certificate process and get educated on what holding a certificate can do in addition to providing the most up-to-date information to help staff reach their full potential. In her coordination of the state conference, Root is a cheerleader for professional development, actively engaging in learning and growth opportunities.

Jennifer Graham, Food Assistant at Matthew Arthur Elementary School in Houston County Schools, GA, the Southeast regional Employee of the Year.

Jennifer Graham, the Southeast regional Employee of the Year, serving lunch to one of her favorite special education students.

Graham’s kindness and enthusiasm to serve students has been incredibly well received in her community, as evidenced by the appreciation they’ve shown her during the pandemic. Families have sent cards and emails thanking her for her kindness and service, they organized a thank you parade and children wrote her messages in sidewalk chalk outside of the school.

Graham created themes to celebrate holidays at curbside pick-up and is known for wearing fun costumes and humorous T-shirts with food themed puns, such as “One Spooktacular Lunch Lady” and inspiring others to do the same. At the school nutrition program’s state fair celebration, Graham wears a hot dog costume and worked to create some fantastic decorations. . For the “Out of this World” National School Breakfast Week theme, Graham dressed in a full C3PO costume to serve Princess Leia cinnamon buns and Dark Side donut holes. She has dressed as a frog, bumblebee and elephant just to bring smiles to students’ faces and make them feel appreciated.

Graham remains in-tune with student needs, coordinating diet modifications or providing extra attention to students with learning disabilities. She knows students’ names and birthdays and goes the extra mile to help celebrate their achievements.

According to her supervisors, she is known for professionalism and willingness to go above and beyond for her peers and students. With labor and packaging costs increased during the pandemic, Graham convinced colleagues to enter a choreographed dance contest with her and they ended up winning $1,000 for the school meal program. Her passion to promote the program extends to social media as well. She truly loves her career in school nutrition and sharing her experiences with others.

Rachel Anna King, cook/cashier at Spring City Elementary in North Sanpete School District, UT, the West regional Employee of the Year.

Rachel Anna King, the West regional Employee of the Year, still smiling (under her mask) as she greets students in the service line.

King has been the ultimate team player during the pandemic, dividing her time between the elementary school and high school to fill in where needed, even if it meant traveling to multiple locations. This past summer, King delivered meals to children who lived on the outskirts of town to ensure they were nourished.

She encourages students to try new foods, educating them on nutritional benefits of foods to support their growing minds and bodies. Through the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, King introduces a variety of fresh produce to students. She makes it easy for them to try by cutting produce up but saves one whole fruit or vegetable to encourage students to find it in the grocery store. Students love to see her Halloween costume every year and look forward to her decorations in the kitchen and lunchroom for holidays.

Supervisors describe King as a go-getter who has come in on her own time to train and improve baking and entrée preparation skills. She attends trainings and conferences whenever possible and is eager to learn and bring new skills back to her kitchen. She loves the school foodservice program and wants to further her career. She is also very involved in the local SNA chapter and is one of the first to volunteer whenever there is a banquet, meeting or party. She is always eager to help wherever needed, regardless of how difficult the task. 

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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