School Lunch Heroes Recognized Nationally

The non-profit School Nutrition Association (SNA) is celebrating the efforts of school nutrition professionals all week leading up to School Lunch Hero Day on May 5.  During an online award ceremony on May 2, SNA President Lori Adkins, MS, SNS, CHE announced national Director, Manager and Employee of the Year award winners, recognized for their dedication and outstanding commitment to the school nutrition profession. 

Patsi Gregory, School Nutrition Supervisor for Robertson County Schools, TN

Director of the Year: Patsi Gregory, SNS, School Nutrition Program Supervisor for Robertson County Schools, Tennessee

When Patsi Gregory started her career in the district, she worked to balance inequities across school meal programs that were causing dissatisfaction among students, parents and community partners. Each school was creating separate menus and purchasing ingredients of different quality, so Gregory helped develop district-wide cycle menus and evened out the staffing. Implementing these changes while increasing training among staff resulted in a 28% increase in meal participation and helped the district grow from having zero fund balance to maintaining the recommended three months emergency fund.

The improved financial standing has supported nutrition employees directly as well, increasing salaries and making more staff members eligible to receive insurance benefits. To help retain staff through a tough labor market, Gregory established a new pay scale to compensate long-term employees and recognize the value of employees with commercial food service experience. Her efforts have improved morale and reduced the turnover rate. 

Recognizing many households in the school district do not have access to quality internet service to view menus, Gregory mails a monthly newsletter with menus and fun, educational activities for parents and guardians to interact with students. She also developed a Facebook page to increase the visibility of the program to the community.

Gregory has realized the benefits of partnering with community organizations to reach students. She partnered to provide snacks to elementary students receiving after-school tutoring in Title 1 schools. Gregory also teaches an after-school cooking class where students learn skills, test potential new breakfast and lunch items and serve as student ambassadors for the school nutrition program. In conjunction with the local sheriff’s department summer enrichment program for low-income students, Gregory coordinates meal service and also encourages nutrition staff to volunteer as mentors for the students.  

Gregory continues to invest in developing the nutrition team, adding more time for training and team building at the start of each school year. She uses the four additional paid days on the calendar to bring in motivational guest speakers or trainers and provide networking and mentoring opportunities with staff from other schools. Gregory has found that fostering relationships among team members before the students arrive helps create a more positive and relaxed environment for staff to support each other and handle challenges that arise during the school year. 

Gregory hosted a forum of staff members to create the “Achieving Excellence” program to motivate and reward outstanding contributions in seven key areas: professionalism, relationships, positivity, culture, input, order and communication. As staff demonstrates progress in these areas, they are rewarded, prompting everyone to strive to be better employees. 

Gregory encourages nutrition team members to join SNA and the state organization. To support continuing education, she coordinated for the school district to cover membership costs for all managers, assistant members and staff who earn their Level 1 SNA Certificate. She also teaches classes to assist members in earning a higher-level certificate. She regularly attends state and national conferences for training opportunities.
Cecelia Ann Araiza, Manager, Madison Park Middle School in Madison Park School District, AZ

Manager of the Year: Cecelia Ann Araiza, Manager for Madison Park Middle School in Madison School District, Arizona

Cecelia Ann Araiza has worked in Madison School District for more than two decades and her passion and dedication show in everything she does. She has created a positive environment in the cafeteria and kitchen for students and staff. Araiza teaches her students about locally grown fruits and vegetables served in their lunches, has hosted farmer’s markets and adopted a calf through a dairy education program. She hosts events to promote the benefits of school meals, participating in National School Lunch Week and National School Breakfast Week each year and engaging students by providing kitchen tours.

Araiza teaches nutrition education classes and cooking lessons and runs a successful after-school culinary club for students in grades 5-8. She helps them learn how to read recipes and prepare meals using common ingredients. Recognizing it can be expensive to buy fresh vegetables, she shares tips with the students about substitutions with canned or frozen vegetables. Araiza started an after-school gardening club for students. She has also been able to bring new nutrition education programs to her school working with Arizona Department of Education resources.

Araiza makes sure each kitchen staff member is successful and happy in their position, sharing her knowledge to help employees advance their careers and find their passion.  A sign of success for Araiza is the high retention rate of her team. She has taken management classes and conflict resolution classes to improve her own skills and then passes along what she has learned to co-workers.

As a member of the school’s “Sunshine Committee,” Araiza helps plan programming to ensure staff and students feel appreciated and makes sure all staff members are included in training sessions, even translating training materials for Spanish-speaking employees. She believes the success of the team comes when everyone receives the same opportunities.

As an active member of her local School Nutrition Association chapter, Araiza recognizes the benefits of membership, including networking opportunities, sharing ideas and supporting fellow school nutrition professionals. She previously served on the chapter board and encourages staff to attend classes and meetings. She regularly attends state conferences and networks with other members. 

Connie Kingsley, Inventory Specialist for Lee’s Summit R-7 School District, MO

Employee of the Year: Connie Kingsley, Inventory Specialist for Lee’s Summit R-7 School District, Missouri  

Connie Kingsley came out of retirement when the Lee’s Summit R-7 School District needed assistance in the nutrition services office. As a former school nutrition manager, Kingsley uses her knowledge of the ordering system and familiarity with school food supplies and products to help the department with challenges. Through constant product shortages and supply chain issues, Kingsley communicates with nutrition staff on substitutions, new

products and code changes to relieve some stress from managers and make their ordering easier. Kingsley is very organized, efficient and dependable – she works closely with the warehouse crew to ensure product levels and inventory are correct, that items are rotated and orders are pulled accurately, and she helps organize files and supplies.

Through her careful tracking of missing items, product shortages and substitutions,  Kingsley has been instrumental in ensuring the district received proper credit for thousands of dollars owed from food and commodity distributors.

Kingsley also serves as the nutrition department representative for the district Employee Wellness Program. She shares with co-workers important information about their health insurance and supports the well-being challenges offered. Kingsley is known for encouraging co-workers on the importance of taking care of themselves to better serve their students.

Now in the second chapter of her child nutrition career, Kingsley has again shown dedication to professional development, doing everything she can to strengthen her knowledge of the business and financial side of the department and completing necessary classes for current certificates. She attends local and state food shows to learn about products and how they fit into the guidelines. Kingsley attended several USDA and commodity education sessions, and her training there prompted her to update some district processes to be more efficient and effective.

These three national award winners and 18 regional award winners will be celebrated in conjunction with an appreciation campaign leading up to School Lunch Hero Day (SLHD) on Friday, May 5. The National Director, Manager and Employee of the Year recipients receive an all-expense paid trip to SNA’s Annual National Conference, July 9-11, 2023 in Denver, CO, where they will be recognized during the General Session.

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: