School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year for Shannon, Katie and the A-Team!

Shannon C Solomon MS, SNS, been with the Aurora (Colorado) Public Schools Nutrition Services for 13 years. She started as a kitchen manager and rose through the departmental ranks to become Director of Nutrition Services three years ago. Katie Lopez, SNS, has been Assistant Director of Nutrition Services for five years. Pre-pandemic the district had 40,000 enrolled students – approximately 72 percent eligible for free/reduced meals – serving 26,000 lunches and 15,000 breakfasts on daily basis. When schools closed in March 2020, the “A-Team” immediately made one of many pivots to begin serving curbside locations (53) and on bus routes (17) throughout Aurora. This basic Grab-n-Go model – with a daily meal packs for all children served 10:45 to 11:30 – continued throughout the summer.

Starting October, Aurora students gradually returned to school using a hybrid learning plan. The department continues to serve curbside, on buses, and in-school meals – with their mission as their north star: Nutrition Services supports student achievement by serving nutritious, delicious, quality meals with excellent customer service. During COVID-19 the A-Team has focused on feeding students and families where they are. By the week of April 19, they will have served 7 million meals – including 9,000 Turkey dinner kits for Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving dinner distribution

What was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome in the past year?

Solomon and Lopez are quick to identify the overarching challenge they faced during COVID-19 – fear. Administration, educators and department employees were afraid of the virus and afraid of failing to feed children adequately. They overcame fear with a combination of transparency and trust – along with healthy doses of persistence, grit and flexibility. The Nutrition Services stayed focused on the mission of feeding kids – this is what we do no matter what. Lopez attributes much of the A-Team’s success to Shannon’s leadership style of consistency and clear direction. She has been at work every day making sure that the employees have what they need to fulfill their motto: Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop Feeding Kids.

Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop Feeding Kids

What achievement are you the proudest of in the past year?

In a March 2021 report, the A-Team list best practices that have enabled them to serve 7 million meals. It is worth listing them here because they illustrate that multiple factors are what makes Aurora Public Schools Nutrition Services so special:

  • Culture of open sharing of fears, doubts, unknowns and emotions (no right or wrong)
  • Grateful Challenge exercise
  • Communication, communication, communication
  • Daily wellness checks
  • Daily debriefs
  • Daily virtual huddles
  • Consistency, communication, marketing
  • Having fun!
  • Clear mission
  • Delicious, nutritious, QUALITY meals: If we wouldn’t eat it, we wouldn’t serve it!
  • Fresh fruits and vegetables daily
  • Community outreach
  • Inventory management
  • Utilization of social media
  • Menu flexibility
  • Celebrate all victories – big or small!
  • Embrace failure and daily changes
  • Adapt and pivot quickly with a clear communication process
  • Partnered with neighboring districts on all best practices
  • Partnered with local restaurants to provide a hot lunch option every other week.
  • Providing a ready-to-eat item in each bag. This often allowed families to enjoy their meal on site while socially distancing.
  • Partnered with Children’s Hospital Colorado to help with the need in the community. In April, hospital staff began passing out Food Boxes to our community at APS drive-thru sites. This partnership was a game-changer for the community in Aurora.
  • Sending home Big Bag Friday with meals to sustain over the weekend
  • APS Foundation coordinated donations to cover the cost of adult meals

What innovation have you made that you will continue using in the future?

Shannon and Katie are eager to continue meeting their customers where they are throughout school campuses. They now have grab-n-go hallways carts in every wing of many schools. Now that they have the right equipment – thanks to grants from Dairy Max – they are able to increase participation in a variety of ways. Plus, now that administrators and educators have realized meals in the classroom can work well, Nutrition Services hopes to make BIC and other classroom meals the norm.

Fulton Family Picnic in the park