School Lunch Heroes; RRES nutrition team wins award for creativity, dedication to healthy meals

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Cafeteria workers at Rockfish River Elementary school have been serving up healthy meals and much more for students — their hard work and creativity was recently recognized with a “School Lunch Hero” award from No Kid Hungry Virginia.

This is the second year No Kid Hungry Virginia has awarded school lunch hero awards, and Rockfish River is one of eight Virginia schools that earned the recognition on School Lunch Day, May 5. No Kid Hungry is a national campaign — by the nonprofit Share Our Strength — that works toward ending childhood hunger in the U.S.

Honorees were selected based on their efforts to expand, improve and innovate school meal programs, and on their commitments to “excellence in school meals,” No Kid Hungry Virginia Senior Program Manager Amy Biestek explained May 16.

Interviewed by phone, Biestek said, “What stood out to us was the way in which the Rockfish River School Nutrition team goes above and beyond to enhance the entire school meals experience, from coordinating a visit from a dairy cow to the school, inviting the superintendent to come and read books to the students at mealtimes and also organizing events during holidays like Easter where the nutrition team invited the Easter bunny, helped kids dye eggs and decorated milk carton egg baskets.”

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“They go above and beyond for our students with extra events,” RRES Principal Jody Coffey said from the schools’ cafeteria May 17, talking over the cheerful din of about 100 students eating their lunches.

On “taste-test Thursdays” the RRES nutrition team serves up a vegetable students may not have tried before, such as turnips, asparagus and sweet potatoes, often sourced from local farms.

Cafeteria Manager Amy Jackson explained the taste-testing vegetables are an addition to students’ regular lunch portions, and they don’t get any less food for the day if they don’t like them.

Coffey and NCPS Nutrition Supervisor Christina Connell talked about how Jackson works to accommodate and create options for students.

She’s had plenty of practice; Jackson’s been cafeteria manager for 24 years, working in restaurants before the school opened. Connell’s worked in the division for eight years and said she couldn’t recall Jackson ever missing a day of work.

Jackson’s team has coordinated a table-setting activity for students, brought a dairy cow to school for a milking demonstration and set up a racetrack around the cafeteria for national school lunch week.

“It’s like being a kid at heart,” Jackson said.

Fulfilling a need

The RRES nutrition team’s efforts are especially important in Nelson, where all students receive school breakfast and lunches free of charge through the federally-funded Community Eligibility Provision program. School divisions qualify for the program when their percentage of students already certified for free meals — through programs like SNAP — is greater than or equal to 40%.

As of the enrollment data the division shared in October 2022, 61% of NCPS students are classified as economically disadvantaged.

Coffey said of Jackson: “She loves them [students] and wants to just give them the world and show them things that they don’t get at home sometimes …”

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