School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year for Janis, Ben and 129 Employees of the Year!


Director Janis Campbell-Aikens, MBA, RDN, SNS, CD, and Coordinator Ben Atkinson, MS, RDN, CD, have worked together in Auburn, Washington, School District Child Nutrition Services for 2 years. The district has about 16,500 students with a pre-pandemic free/reduced rate of 52 percent and daily average of 5,000 breakfasts and 9,000 lunches. When Washington State schools closed in March, Auburn started serving grab-n-go meals curbside and very quickly switched to bus route deliveries in partnership with their transportation department. From March 2020 to March 2021 their department served 1,635,239 meals, including meals at every school break which was new for them. Elementary students, who are currently in school buildings 2.5 hours per day, pick up a cold breakfast and hot lunch on their way home, with some schools receiving Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program snacks as well. Secondary students, who are in buildings for a full day 2 times per week, receive breakfast and a hot lunch during their lunch break. Additionally, there are curbside pick up locations at each school, as well as 8 mobile distribution routes serving about 50 stops throughout the school district.

Child Nutrition Services delivery vans

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

Janis and Ben agreed that their biggest concern was keeping their employees COVID-19 safe with precautions unclear and/or changing from week to week. And they succeeded! While there were COVID cases, they never spread within the department. They are very grateful for the ongoing communication and regular guidance updates from the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI).

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

This March Auburn School District honored all 129 ASD Child Nutrition staff members as the Classified Employees of the Year. As noted in the district’s announcementStaff members in this department are true frontline heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic and have been since the first days of the pandemic. A few examples:

  • They were serving meals to students the week after schools closed. This was during a time when very little was known about COVID-19 and they showed up to prepare and serve meals to thousands of children.
  • Staff volunteered to work on spring break, Thanksgiving break, winter break and mid-winter break to make sure no children in Auburn go without food.
  • They worked all summer serving meals throughout Auburn, Algona & Pacific.
  • They are reimagining in-person school meals so we are sure to follow all of the health and safety requirements AND make sure students have good nutrition.
  • The CN office staff has worked to support families and assist with resources.
Wonderful way to recognize the contribution of Child Nutrition

Janis and Ben noted that between Child Nutrition and Transportation they knew the needs of each and every kid – and they were able to make certain that they got the food they needed.

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

Even the midst of the pandemic Ben has continued to focus on innovations in packaging and testing new recipes. These have included fresh, new flavors like Bahn Mi and Cuban sandwiches as well as the cultural flavors that reflect the meals that families enjoy at home, including chana masala and beef lo mein. They hope to continue and grow both of these innovation channels in the future.

Taste testing new recipes: Bahn Mi and Mozzarella Tomato Sandwiches plus Beef Burrito Bowls

School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year for Maria and Your Choice Fresh!


Maria Eunice, MS, SNS, has been the Director of Alachua County Food & Nutrition Services, Gainesville, Florida, for 16 years. The district has 30,000 students with a free/reduced rate of about 50 percent. Pre-pandemic the department – also known as Your Choice Fresh with the tagline Empowering Students Through Healthy Meals – served approximately 1.6 million breakfasts, 3.5 million lunches, 420,000 suppers and 680,000 snacks per year.

Cutest pick-up customers ever

During the year of COVID-19, Food & Nutrition Services was an acknowledged “shining star” in the district serving over 6.4 million meals since March 2020. Using a total of 81 sites (curbside and bus routes) during school closures, Alachua actually grew breakfast participation to 2.1 million meals. With only two weeks off in the past year, they have covered families’ nutrition needs every single day of the pandemic. With the exception of 6,500 virtual learners, all students have been in-person and eating at school since August 2020. Twenty-four curbside sites are still open for bulk distribution two days per week from 9:30 am to 1:00 pm. Every decision – like these distribution times – has been made to maximize participant convenience and customer service. If local students needed food, Alachua Food & Nutrition Services was there to provide it.

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

The main challenge identified by Maria will be familiar to nutrition directors across the country – how to make long term plans with short term waivers. While the waivers were (and are) wonderful, they often caused disruption in food and commodity orders that had already been placed for summer and back-to-school meals. Shifting gears for major pivots happened on several occasions in Alachua. They also experienced supply-chain issues for food items, packaging and even bins to use on bus routes. They thrived thanks to dedicated employees and community support.

Alachua employees make all the difference

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

Maria is very proud of the new and improved relationships within the school district and the wider community that have grown over the year of COVID-19. Food & Nutrition Services trained paraprofessionals, crossing guards and, of course, bus drivers to help with food distribution – and some have become department employees! Everyone, including the school board, has a new appreciation for the importance and contributions of the Your Choice Fresh. Unexpected assistance came in many forms; at bus route distribution points, the local police would often announce the arrival of meals and encourage families to ‘come and get it’ over their PA systems.

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

Food & Nutrition Services wants to continue growing their engagement with families around food and nutrition at home. The YC at Home (Your Choice at Home) platform has allowed them to effectively share nutrition and culinary education, reinforcing the benefits of school meals for the whole family at home. The use of QR codes is another successful innovation that they will keep using. Printing the codes onto packaging and menus has made it easy for customers to find cooking instructions and other information on the departmental website – with one click on a smartphone.

Customer service with QR codes for links to recipes and more

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