Cafeteria & Kitchen Managers’ Award Winning Efforts

Nutrition managers are often the glue keeping school meal programs running smoothly. They have risen to the challenges over the past two years, feeding children through school closures or remote learning, then managing supply chain disruptions and challenges to keep kitchens and cafeterias staffed. 

The national, non-profit School Nutrition Association (SNA) has awarded 2022 Regional Managers of the Year for their inspiring efforts. The award is considered the highest honor a school nutrition manager can earn. This year’s recipients will be recognized together with their colleagues across the country on School Lunch Hero Day, May 6, 2022:

LaShawn Bray, Supervisor II Manager for Hesperia Unified School District, CA

LaShawn Bray, Supervisor II Manager for Hesperia Unified School District, CA, the West regional Manager of the Year

LaShawn Bray is known to have a positive attitude and strong listening skills and is a great team player.  She works closely with staff members and district principals to create a welcoming environment for students.

Recognizing the importance of excellent customer service, she has implemented ideas to improve staff communications, creating an open team environment which encourages everyone to have input. Her student customers can feel the love when they walk into the cafeteria and are greeted by cheery and happy staff.

When it comes to bringing new items to the lunch menu, she engages her young customers for guidance. Bray enjoys doing taste tests with the students to find the right food fit for each grade level.  

She creates themed dress-up days for staff and makes food for the students to go with the theme. Bray believes in seeking staff input for training sessions and she works directly with them to improve their various kitchen skills. She makes sure everyone has a full understanding of the importance of mandates and regulations in school nutrition.  Under her leadership, the Hesperia Unified School District won the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) “Turnip the Beet” award for excellence in its summer meal program.  

LaShawn Bray is very active outside her school community as well and volunteers for several different local non-profit organizations. 

Crystal Jo Bruns, Kitchen Manager at Caliche Schools in RE-1 Valley Schools District, CO

Crystal Jo Bruns, Kitchen Manager at Caliche Schools in RE-1 Valley Schools District, CO, the Southwest regional Manager of the Year

Crystal Jo Bruns is the kitchen manager at the school where her children attend, giving her extra motivation to make sure the food served exceeds students’ daily expectations.  Under Bruns’ guidance, smoothies and parfaits were added to the breakfast menu twice a week, and on those days the school had close to 100% participation in the Breakfast after the Bell program.

The school now sees more teachers participating in the lunch program as well. Bruns has created several different salad recipes each week, enticing a majority of the teachers to eat her salads for lunch.

Crystal Jo Bruns has a love for cooking and has had several recipes published in magazines and cookbooks. She always wants to share her cooking skills with those willing to learn. Bruns highlights the hard work of the school kitchen on social media, posting pictures and menus to encourage students to participate. She also encourages parents to come to the cafeteria now that COVID restrictions have been lifted and they are allowed to eat with their children.

Caliche Schools is smaller and more rural within the district, giving it some great advantages to be creative in the cafeteria. Bruns invited local veterans to have lunch with the students for Veterans Day, and included parents to have a special lunch with their children for Thanksgiving in the cafeteria.

Erika Santana, Kitchen Lead at Seahurst Elementary School in Highline Public Schools, WA

Erika Santana, Kitchen Lead at Seahurst Elementary School in Highline Public Schools, WA, the Northwest regional Manager of the Year 

Erika Santana has created a welcoming environment at the school, she knows students by name and greets them in the cafeteria warmly each day. Students enjoy giving her ideas for menu items and talking with her about what is going on in their lives.  She responds to the youngest customers in either English or Spanish based on their preference.  

Santana’s background in the restaurant industry helped her develop incredible customer service skills, which can also be seen in her beautiful salad bar displays that feature local foods. She finds work in schools rewarding and has said that she wishes she made the change to school nutrition earlier in her career.

During school closures due to the pandemic, Santana served hot meals from a school bus.  She also put up flyers in surrounding communities so families knew about the availability of school meals and where and when they could get them.

With schools back in session full-time, Santana has created connections from the classroom to the cafeteria by promoting various farm-to-school offerings and hosting a food fair, where students were able to taste-test new foods. She encourages members of the district’s school board to come to the school and serve meals, and she received an award from the superintendent for her work in the cafeteria.

Bonnie Gassett, Cafeteria Manager at Landstown High School in Virginia Beach City Public Schools, VA

Bonnie Gassett, Cafeteria Manager at Landstown High School in Virginia Beach City Public Schools, VA, the Southeast regional Manager of the Year

Bonnie Gassett always goes above and beyond to feed the students in this large school district meals that are appealing and in compliance with regulations. She serves as a role model for other cafeteria managers, inspiring them to think outside the box and streamline operations.

Gassett’s positive attitude, hard work and dedication have not gone unnoticed by school administrators, parents and co-workers. She is known for the little things, like showing her appreciation on a daily basis, coordinating team building activities and encouraging staff to write positive notes to others in the school that they do not know. To get her staff out of the kitchen and more visible in the school, she asked them to paint rocks and hide them in the school for students and staff to find.

Knowing it takes teamwork to create a good working environment, Gassett makes sure to recognize the efforts of her staff.  She created personalized aprons for team members for School Lunch Hero Day 2021. The school administration also took time to recognize the efforts her team makes every day for the students.

In 2020, she started a menu and delivery service for teachers.  Gassett received help from the Special Needs class to assist with delivering lunches to school staff, helping the students with work experience requirements needed for graduation.

Gassett is always open for meetings with students and parents to hear any concerns they may have, which has helped her implement solutions proactively.  During the 2020-2021 school year when there were both in-person and virtual learning students, Gassett created an outdoor pickup station for families. For holiday breaks, she created a QR code so families could scan and fill out a form to request food for school break. 

Gassett has also spearheaded new initiatives at Landstown High School, including scratch cooking, vending machines with reimbursable lunch meals, and the planning of an outdoor garden. 

Amy Uecker, Child Nutrition Manager at West Clermont High School in the West Clermont School District, OH

Amy Uecker, Child Nutrition Manager at West Clermont High School in the West Clermont School District, OH, the Mideast regional Manager of the Year 

Amy Uecker is described as innovative and a versatile member of the school nutrition team.  At the height of supply chain shortages, she continued to create new menu items, even when dealing with staff shortages at the same time.  Uecker put the students’ needs and requests first, assuring supervisors that her staff could handle the workload and innovate menu items even under difficult circumstances.

As manager at the high school, Uecker feels it is important to cross-train staff to ensure the cafeteria runs smoothly and efficiently in her absence. Uecker uses professional development and remote learning days to conduct training on topics from food safety to knife skills.  Due to her effectiveness as a trainer and leader, she is often asked to train new managers working in other district schools.

As a member of the School Nutrition Association of Ohio (SNA of Ohio), Amy Uecker has attended multiple state conferences. She enjoys sharing with staff the new and fresh ideas she learns, some of which have been incorporated into district-wide practices. 

Uecker also assists with catering events throughout the district, including Kindergarten Night for prospective kindergarten students and families to see what the district offers.  For the district’s Parent Education Series, Uecker offers scratch-made meals including spaghetti with a locally made sauce and fresh salad with locally grown lettuce. These evenings are a way the district showcases its Farm to School program. Under Amy Uecker’s guidance, the school offers fresh local vegetables including cucumbers, butternut squash and lettuce. She also assists with developing a summer education program focused on nutrition and preparing healthy meals.

Deb Timek, Cafeteria Manager at Thomas Hooker Elementary School, Meriden, CT

Deb Timek, Cafeteria Manager at Thomas Hooker Elementary School in Meriden, CT, the Northeast regional Manager of the Year

Deb Timek has been serving children meals in Meriden for 22 years, the past 11 as a manager. Described as kind and flexible, Timek is right beside her staff prepping, serving and cooking and doesn’t let limitations of the kitchen impact her job. Thomas Hooker Elementary School was built without a kitchen space, it was later created from a closet with  no walk-in freezer or refrigerator, hot wells or steamer. Her desk is next to the dishwashing sink but even within that challenging environment, Timek keeps smiling and treating even the most challenging children in a kind, caring manner. Each day, 450 students receive nutritious and delicious meals made with love.

Involvement in the school community is very important to Timek. She encourages all her staff members to join in school themed spirit days. Her commitment to the school community is reciprocated by the school staff, who are extremely supportive of the food service program. 

It is also important for Timek to mentor her staff and encourage them to apply for promotions within the department.  She has trained her staff so effectively that even her days off are run seamlessly, except for missing her cheerful morning greetings.

At the beginning of the COVID pandemic, when schools were shutting down, Timek immediately offered her school to be a pick-up location for student meals. She always offers to lend a helping hand to others, even if it could mean a substantial amount of extra work.

​​The Manager of the Year Award is given in honor of Louise Sublette, a leader in school nutrition in her state and in the national School Nutrition Association. During her 43 years in the profession, Sublette worked in many areas of foodservice—public schools, colleges, hospitals and elderly feeding programs. Sublette dedicated her career to honoring school nutrition professionals and ensuring those who work in school cafeterias have access to professional development opportunities, empowering them to help their school meal programs flourish.

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 6. Students, faculty and parents across the country will show their appreciation with thanks, cards and recognition for their cafeteria staff. Visit for more information.

In addition to the 10th Anniversary of School Lunch Hero Day, this year also marks the return of the Lunch Lady graphic novels which are being re-released in new, full-color editions along with full-cast audio books featuring Kate Flannery from The Office. 

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