School Nutrition Employees Honored for Outstanding Work

They are often the first people students see when they grab their school breakfast or offer a familiar smile to greet students for lunch. On School Lunch Hero Day, these regional winners of School Nutrition Association’s Employee of the Year award are being recognized for their job well done!

Pamela Heesh, Food Assistant for Matt Arthur Elementary School in Houston County School District, Georgia, Southeast regional Employee of the Year

Pamela Heesh, Food Assistant for Houston County School District, GA

Students seek out Pamela Heesh for hugs or smiles in the cafeteria daily. She is their friend, confidant and supporter, and the students trust her implicitly, which speaks volumes to her efforts beyond the excellent food she cooks. Heesh excels in customer service, her enthusiasm spills over into serving lines decorated for holidays, colorful presentations of foods and fun outfits like Mrs. Claus, a crayon or other school-themed character costumes, which she often makes herself. The students look forward to seeing what is new in the cafeteria, and Heesh regularly posts on Facebook to help market the creative meal program and showcase the amazing food.

Heesh demonstrates a genuine interest in her coworkers’ lives; she is a team leader that encourages them, assists with tasks and even bakes for them. She has endeared herself to the school team, preparing special staff breakfasts, and she is a beloved fixture of the school who parents, teachers and administrators engage with to address questions or concerns. 

Shelley Marriott, Assistant Kitchen Manager for James Madison Elementary School in the Ogden School District, Utah, Southwest regional Employee of the Year   

Shelley Marriott, Kitchen Assistant for Ogden School District, UT

Shelley Marriott is described as a dependable and compassionate member of the school nutrition team. Her kind and patient interactions with students help them feel comfortable, especially among the large refugee population in the district. She makes extra efforts to help them understand the foods they are eating at school and talks with them to learn about foods from their native countries.

Marriott feels no matter what, it is important to greet the students every day with a smile when they come into the cafeteria. Working in a school with a high population of families eligible for free and reduced price meals, Marriott knows that many of her students haven’t eaten since lunch the day before. Despite challenges in her life, she shows up every day and pushes herself to be better, striving to learn and grow, and remains committed to the students and the school nutrition profession. She employs excellent customer service, fielding requests from students, parents and school colleagues, asking questions to see what is possible and following through. 

Jeannette Barteck, cook for Southern Bluffs Elementary School in the School District of La Crosse, Wisconsin, Midwest regional Employee of the Year 

Jeannette Barteck, Cook for School District of La Crosse, WI

Jeannette Barteck has spent almost 20 years working in school nutrition, always listening to the children with kindness and a compassionate heart. Students coming through the breakfast and lunch lines have come to know Barteck as an adult they can trust and lean on. She often stops what she is doing to help a student who can’t decide what they want for lunch or just listen to them talk about their good or bad days. She is constantly coming up with new menu ideas and ways to make each meal a little more special for students. She makes each holiday special with creative bulletin boards and decorations to get the students excited about being in the cafeteria.

Though it’s not in her job description, Barteck regularly offers to do paperwork, menu planning and recipe development for her manager. She is integral to the district’s allergen meal program, taking the lead with the team to prep, make and properly seal and send out all of the celiac, soy-free and egg-free meals for all of the district buildings. Barteck works hard to create these special menus as close to the district’s traditional menu rotation as possible so those children don’t feel singled out with different meals.  

 Paola Francisco, cafeteria employee at Albio Sires Elementary School, in West New York Schools, New Jersey, Mid-Atlantic regional Employee of the Year  

Paola Francisco, Cafeteria Employee for West New York Schools, NJ

Paola Francisco has an unwavering commitment to her school district’s nutrition team and the students they feed daily. Francisco makes it a priority to let the students know they are important. She always has a big smile while serving nutritious and delicious school meals and loves when students are willing to try new things when they go through her bright and colorful serving lines. Francisco’s attention to detail is impeccable; the state’s health inspector even commented that she had the cleanest kitchen they’d ever seen. 

Inclusion is very important to Francisco, and she finds ways to promote inclusion through school meals. She facilitated a program with students on the autism spectrum and their classroom peers to make a special lunch together during Autism Awareness Week. She used the theme “We are all parts of the same pie” and had students make pizzas together, then provided recognition for students’ efforts when they ate lunch. She takes special care of children with special needs, accommodating students with braces, food allergies or other needs. 

She also worked with the school’s Parent Teacher Association to create a family cooking challenge. Similar to the television show “Chopped,” each team received a basket of food and had to create a meal together. An outside wellness group assisted with judging and coaching. 

Doreen McHugh, Mystic River Magnet School cook in Groton Public Schools, Connecticut, Northeast regional Employee of the Year  

Doreen McHugh, Cook for Groton Public Schools, CT

Doreen McHugh is one of the first people to volunteer and help out at her school and in the community. When she realized there wasn’t a place for children to sit and eat their breakfast and lunch during summer meal service in a high-needs neighborhood, she found a picnic table. She supports Farm to School Community dinners that take place at the high school a few times each year. In the school’s cafeteria, she created a “Share Because We Care” table to provide more food to students who are still hungry and help reduce food waste.  

McHugh loves getting direct feedback from her young customers. She asks to be on the serving lines during lunch to talk with the students and hear their opinions on school meals, helps with taste tests and gets kids to try new fruits and vegetables.

Alejandrina Zepeda, Nutrition Services Lead for Washington Elementary School in Woodburn School District #103, Oregon, Western regional Employee of the Year  

Alejandrina Zepeda, Nutrition Services Lead for Woodburn School District #103, OR

Alejandrina Zepeda sees it as part of her job to know each of the 500 children coming through the lunch line by name, and to ask them about their day, what they are learning and how everything is at home. She takes time during lunch to come out, ask students how they like their food, and help clean up or interact with teachers and administrators to promote a healthy, safe and fun cafeteria experience.

Washington Elementary is the highest-poverty school in the district and Zepeda advocates for extra services and exposure for her students. Through USDA’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, the school can provide more free produce to students during the day. Zepeda distributes flyers with photos and information so the students learn where the food comes from. She is proud of her Hispanic heritage and loves bringing diversity into the kitchen by preparing ethnic recipes or getting creative with menus while following National School Lunch Program guidelines. She also gives food samples to the staff so they have buy-in on new foods and can better encourage students to try items and hype healthy options.

The Employee of the Year Award was created to recognize outstanding school nutrition employees who influence the quality of school meals through customer service, an interest in young people, cooperation, work attendance, creativity, participation in professional development and their willingness to go above and beyond the call of duty.  

​​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: