The School Nutrition Foundation’s 2017 Celebration of School Nutrition Heroes honored a quintet of servant leaders creating change in their communities. “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” This quote attributed to Mother Theresa is an apt description of the many school nutrition professionals who nourish and nurture America’s children day in and day out. But each year, SNA’s philanthropic sister organization, the School Nutrition Foundation (SNF), recognizes a small group of individuals who go even further and honors them as School Nutrition Heroes. The 2017 Heroes were selected from a field of 31 nominations. And these five school nutrition professionals exemplify, through care and compassion, the dedication and drive to go way beyond the job to make a big difference in the lives of the children and communities they serve. They are truly outstanding representatives of a giving profession: sheltering homeless families; acting as a catalyst for change in student wellness; striving to help those living on and walking the streets; working to repurpose vacant city land to grow fruits and vegetables; and redirecting edible food from the landfill to help alleviate local hunger. A special Celebration recognizing the 2017 Heroes and supporting SNF was held in Washington, D.C., in April, but School Nutrition wants to ensure that all of our readers have the opportunity to “meet” this year’s honorees. As you read their first-person accounts in the following pages of this article, their stories are sure to touch your hearts and inspire your own activities. David Schwake MS, RD, SNS Food Service Director Litchfield Elementary School, District #79 Litchfield Park, Arizona Growing up working in a family-owned bakery in a rural Oklahoma community, I have never experienced hunger in my entire life. But once I arrived in this community in Arizona and saw all the hunger firsthand, the concern just grew on me. Why, in this country of so much, is hunger as prevalent as it is? Here in the greater Phoenix metropolitan area, we probably have a greater problem with hunger than many other communities. I would say one out of five children go hungry. As the homeless population continues to increase, all our local food banks are consistently running short. In my school district, seeing kids come in Monday morning anxious to get the first hot meal they have had since the Friday before, I felt like I had an obligation, a duty, to do more to reduce hunger. The age-old problem in this country is that we have enough food, but we haven’t figured out how to get it where it is needed the most. Working in the food industry, every day I see food that is thrown away. So, what I have done for the past eight or nine years is develop relationships with many local grocery stores, donut shops and bakeries at dozens of locations in the area. I worked out a system where every Sunday and Wednesday, I pick up leftover produce, breads, baked goods and other [perishable] food items and load them into the back of my pickup truck. I deliver the food to different agencies that will distribute it to people who need it, including the local Salvation Army, Agua Fria Food and Clothing Bank and the New Life Center, a domestic violence shelter. But it’s no longer just me who picks up and delivers this food; I’ve developed a network of about 30 volunteers who help. I just seem to be very blessed with having the skillset to work out the logistics to get around and to know folks in the community who want to help. I will ask store managers: “Can you help us out; can we pick up your leftover bread or produce tonight?” I am not shy about asking, and rarely do I get told “no.” In the school district, I will often get a call from one of our school administrators or the homeless liaison telling me about a particular family in crisis, perhaps living in their car without access to food, and asking if I can help them out. I just need to know how many people are in the family, how many kids and how many under five, so that I can bring them the appropriate emergency box, which should provide them with enough food for three or four days. I hope I can be a role model or an example for other folks to follow. This is a great country that we live in and with all the food we grow, I want to do all that I can to reduce hunger. I don’t think we can ever eliminate it, but I hope that we are making progress. “David came by our booth at the AZ SNA Annual Conference last year and I learned about his program and how his passion for children’s well-being goes beyond the school walls to the entire community. All of David’s colleagues told me the same thing: He is a humble, caring individual who is tireless in his efforts to end hunger in his community. I knew David was deserving of this award.” Jean Ronnei, SNS, SNA President 2015-16, Senior Consultant, Pro-Team Foodservice Advisors Timikel Blakey Sharpe, MS Former Deputy Director of Food Service Los Angeles Unified School District Los Angeles, California I had a vision. It was 2008 and I was back home in Montgomery, Alabama, visiting my mom for Thanksgiving. I went to bed one night and had this clear vision: I saw children playing in the front yard of a house that I was going to purchase. As the children were playing, they ran inside. When they came out, it was a completely different set of children who had emerged. And again, they played and then ran into the house, and yet another group of children came out. I thought to myself: Why are these children in my yard? I was planning to purchase this three-bedroom home as an investment property and was nearly finished with all the paperwork. At first, I didn’t know what I was going to do with the house. But after the vision, I knew: I was going to make it a transition home! My mom asked, ‘What is that?’ I wasn’t sure, but I told her that God had shown me the vision. Being the Christian woman that she is, my mom never questioned me or the direction we would go. Neither of us knew exactly how to do this, but we trusted God’s plan and his way of asking me to do something. I said, “Yes!”—and so did she; my amazing mom serves as our operations person. The Vision of Grace Transition Homes are places to shelter homeless, working families with children, while they save money to get themselves back on their feet. Using my own resources and the aid of local churches and kind individuals, I remodeled and furnished the first home. I contacted the United Way for help in finding prospective families, and they directed me to Family Promise of Montgomery; they referred our very first family and we are still partners today. The vision has become a reality. Families move in and out every three to four months. The families come from varying circumstances; some are literally living on the street, some live in shelters or are participating in other social programs. But they are all trying to escape desperate circumstances. In January 2015, we opened a second home. The success stories of Vision of Grace Transition Homes are numerous. About 95% of our families find work and then their own home or apartment. I now see parents with peace and joy, their family experiences are good, and that is the kind of thing that you can’t put a price on. With the Transition Homes, I am getting one more child off the street, one more child into a place where it is warm, where they are housed in a respectful environment. There is one less child wondering where they will eat or sleep. Now I see children playing in the front yard, but it’s their home; and they are free to ride their bicycles in the neighborhood. For me, it is really about those children. We all have to seek and find that little message that comes in our hearts and in our minds that says, “Do something.” “Timikel told me her story about how she created the Vision of Grace Transition Homes. I was so moved by her story, I now list her non-profit as one of the organizations that I donate to, because of the impact the homes have on families.” Mark Bordeau, SNS, Senior Food Service Director, Broome Tioga (N.Y.) BOCES Doreen Simonds Director, Nutrition & Purchasing Services Waterford School District Waterford, Michigan I was a wedding photographer for 32 years. I’d always intended to stick with that, but God had a different plan for me. In foodservice, I get to use some of the same skills every day. For example, it really helps to be able to take pictures of everything that we are doing and promote it on social media, including our own WSD Food & Nutrition Picture of Health Shutterfly site. I’ve also produced and directed several foodservice videos, posting these on the school’s website and YouTube. I love taking pictures of kids, because that is what it is all about: the kids. I’ve worked in the Waterford Food and Nutrition Services department for 31 years, and I became its foodservice director five years ago. I’ve been involved with quite a number of school nutrition initiatives and projects. But two of my greatest passions are the introduction of our Farm to School program and the promotion of nutrition awareness. Michigan is such a huge agricultural state, but its farmers are really struggling. I saw Farm to School as a great opportunity to form relationships with local growers and introduce the kids to a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. When it is grown locally, it just plain tastes better. Apples are the best example. We buy all our apples from the local Brookwood Fruit Farm, and the kids eat those apples like they are candy. Teachers have remarked that it is great to see kids walking around munching on an apple, instead of a candy bar or a bag of chips. We also get a lot of our vegetables and fruits from the local county farmer’s market and use them for what we call the MiGLEAN (Michigan Growing, Learning, Educating Agricultural Nutrition) Salad Bar. Kids are actually going to Facebook and bragging to their friends about our salad bar and the different foods they are now eating. I also created Tracker the Nutrition Train and Diggin’, his conductor, for our WS Depot Cafes. We also promote farm to school partnerships through our Plot Luck Dinners and the Meet My Farmer video series. Another way we have promoted nutrition awareness is through construction of a “reading wall” at one of our school and community gardens. As part of our Read It and Eat It Program, the kids get nutrition books from our library, then go out into the garden and actually read books about how all of these healthy foods are helping their bodies, while sitting together on the reading wall. I think with all these nutrition programs we’ve instituted—which also include Meet Up and Eat Up at MI Place, Ready Set Go Garden Adventures, Smile Dentist and Taste Test Tuesday—kids are eating healthier and they’re focusing on fitness. They really have a greater awareness of the importance of nutrition on their bodies. I was surprised when we first started these programs, because I didn’t think kids would pay attention to nutrition, but I was wrong. Kids now know that there are nutritional choices out there—and that they can make the right choices. "According to Webster’s Dictionary, a hero is someone who ‘inspires others and is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements and noble qualities.’ Doreen’s life and work in child nutrition embodies this very definition." Lori Adkins, MS, CHE, SNS, Child Nutrition Consultant, Oakland (Mich.) Schools Elizabeth (Liz) Whidden Child Nutrition Program Manager Greystone Elementary, Hoover City Schools Hoover, Alabama What I have found out about life is this: For some people, you just have to love on them. My husband Mark and I own Massey Mercantile, an animal feed and garden seed store on the eastern side of Birmingham, Alabama. There are a lot of prostitutes roaming around near our store location. Most are drug addicts, and I would watch them over the years, as they deteriorated from looking beautiful to ravaged. There was this one woman who would upset me when she stood in front of the store, whistling for men. One day, God’s love just came over me, and I almost jumped over the store counter to give her a hug and tell her that God has better plans for her than letting a man tell her what she is worth. Over the months, we became friends, and I would invite her into the store for coffee and cookies. For a while, she would still be out front, high on drugs and trying to get men—but she always came back. She had been on the street for 18 years, on crack cocaine the whole time. I kept telling her how special she was and tried hard to get her to change—and eventually she did! She just graduated from the University of Tennessee this past December with a degree as a social worker. As her life changed, so did mine. I no longer see any differences in people. People are people, and they all need encouragement. That experience really inspired me. I learned that you can befriend those who live on the street. Some of them you might see over and over again, and then, sometimes, they just disappear and you don’t know what happened to them. Since 2011, I always have small backpacks available for them in the shop. These are filled with a blanket, flashlight, toothbrush, toothpaste, Kleenex, candy, a Bible, deodorant, body spray and some money so they can buy themselves a couple of meals. You don’t want to give them all that stuff and then they go away hungry. You just love on them. The homeless men are very appreciative about receiving these backpacks. The women, especially the prostitutes, always cry and tell the same sad story: Their old man is going to come and get them this afternoon or this week, and they are not going to be on the street anymore. But when they do come back to the street, I always tell them to come back to the store, because there is always somebody who wants to talk to them—me! We stay in business to give; that is what we do. In addition to looking out for our neighbors, we give away seeds and materials to help schools, churches and other organizations with garden projects. It’s not a money-making thing; our business is to give and encourage people. I just love people the way they are, and let the love change them. I try to do that with everybody that I meet because I know that there is a gift in everyone. “Liz has the persona, heart and work ethic of a school nutrition hero. Her positive attitude and tireless energy continuously flows …. Liz sees the good in people and will find joy in whatever task she is accomplishing.” Melinda Bonner, MBA, RD, SNS, Director, Child Nutrition Programs, Hoover City (Ala.) Schools Betti Wiggins Former Executive Director Office of School Nutrition Detroit Public Schools Community District Detroit, Michigan When I came back to Detroit in 2008, it was a food desert. There weren’t many grocery stores—in fact, many were abandoning the city—and people did not have the transportation to get to the ones that did exist. Folks were buying food out of gas stations. The system was broken. People started leaving the inner city, and what you had left were residents like me who decided to stay here and try to figure out how to alleviate this problem. I grew up in a farming community in Southeast Michigan where I learned community responsibility and collaboration. A school board member, Ida Short, and I took classes in urban agriculture and gardening. One day, we found a vacant lot and we started to transform this property into a small garden to serve the community. Across the street there was a school with an abandoned playground. And I thought, “Detroit has all this vacant, abandoned, city-owned property. Why don’t we take this unused land and grow our own fresh fruits and vegetables, not only for the students in our schools but for the folks who live in the city, as well?” That is how it all started. The easiest thing to grow are tomatoes—so cherry tomatoes were the first crop we started growing in our community gardens in 2010. When one of my managers was trying to figure out how to serve it on a student’s tray, I suggested a “Stoplight Salad,” with the tomatoes, yellow squash, cucumber and zucchini, which we also could grow. Soon the Detroit School Garden Collaborative became a reality to serve all schools. We placed six raised-bed gardens at 82 separate school sites. Each school received fresh soil, compost and seedlings twice a year. In addition, we have larger operations. The Randolph Career and Technical Center was once a very beautiful educational facility, but it had fallen into disrepair after a serious decline in enrollment. I had the opportunity to restore it and transform it into a climate-controlled, self-irrigating greenhouse capable of producing 30,000 transplants. I also had the opportunity to build Drew Farms, a two-acre farm with six hoop houses that produces more than 20,000 pounds of food each year. But this whole thing about growing our own food is about my kids. It is about giving my kids the opportunity to not let these facilities go unutilized. It’s also about teaching our kids to have food literacy and to develop more of a consumer relationship with their food. People don’t realize how powerful this message has been in Detroit. To me, the program that has the biggest impact is our food stand program, where we have about 10 students run food markets, selling the food that we grow. We start with the kids in September and they work for the whole year in a work-study program. They grow the food, they package the food and then they market the food in neighboring suburbs. This means a lot to me. Giving life-long skills to 18- to 26-year-old kids who represent our future means the most to me. [Editors’ Note: Wiggins is now assistant superintendent for nutritional services, Houston (Texas) Independent School District.] “I have known Betti for over 30 years. Her bombastic enthusiasm for child nutrition and her tireless dedication to children in need demanded this overdue recognition as a School Nutrition Hero.” Mary Begalle, PhD, RDN, SNS, Senior Director of Industry Relations, SunOpta Foodservice, Wahpeton, N.D. HERO INTERVIEWS AS TOLD TO DOUG SCOTT, CONTRIBUTING EDITOR
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