Late last week, the national non-profit School Nutrition Association (SNA) named USD 413 Director of Nutrition and Services Terri Jo Markham as the Southwest Regional Director of the Year.
Markham said she would have been thrilled to have won in the State of Kansas, but this surpassed everything she ever dreamed of.
This award recognizes the extraordinary contributions of school nutrition directors who manage effective school meal programs by providing healthy, appetizing meals to students. While the nomination process began before widespread COVID-19 school closures, SNA also recognizes the expansive efforts of school nutrition directors to manage current emergency feeding programs, ensuring needy students continue to have access healthy meals.
“I was shocked. When I say shocked, I mean extremely shocked because this is voted on by our peers,” Markham said. “This wasn’t just for Kansas but the entire region. Our region consists of Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, Texas and Louisiana. But the State of Kansas provides us great workshops for Child Nutrition for the State Department. If I ever have any questions, they are always there to answer them.”
Guidelines for child nutrition have increased each and every year about what schools can serve to students. But Markham has always abided by the rules and still managed to plan great meals for the students attending Chanute Public Schools.
“The rules are challenging for everyone, but being here in Kansas, we have tremendous support. They provide us with great training and updates, that we may have not known about if not for their information,” Markham said.
Markham has been a passionate advocate for school nutrition over the years, maintaining fiscal health in her department while providing the highest quality in the meals she serves. Markham listens to student feedback about school meals, makes adjustments, and tries new serving options to keep them coming back to the cafeteria.
Markham said the leadership provided by USD 413 has been phenomenal throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There is no way we would have been able to provide the meals to all these students during the pandemic if it were not for the outstanding leadership provided by Superintendent Dr. Kellen Adams, and Assistant Superintendents Matt Koester and Tracy Maring, as well as the faculty and staff here,” she said. “They remained in constant contact with bus drivers and staff members to bring food to certain drop-off points. We have teachers who are willing to sacrifice their time and hand out meals. I couldn’t work for a better school district. They make everything possible.”
While others were anxious for Spring Break, Markham was at her computer, looking ahead to what might happen and how she could prepare. She knew she couldn’t leave for a week and wait to see what happened.
Instead, she began assessing the contents in her kitchens’ freezers and calculating what she’d need if the schools closed. She inventoried what she would need to order before Spring Break, so she’d be able to serve meals to students outside of the school kitchens if the schools closed.
Because of her foresight, Markham was able to hit the ground running when the governor made the decision to close schools in the middle of the break. She worked with the administrative team and within days finalized a plan to use food service staff to prepare food, subsidized with classified staff, to deliver and serve sack breakfasts and lunches to 11 pickup locations within the Chanute city limits. Others were assigned to drive the rural routes and deliver meals to special education students and others who needed meal service.
“We needed to reach out to those kids who would have to walk to get a meal. So we needed to spread out across the community to all the city’s neighborhoods,” she said.
Where others do what they “can,” that is not Markham’s style. She works tirelessly, within the rules, to convince eligible families to fill out the paperwork for free or reduced price meals.
She participates in wellness events in the community and continues to proudly promote what her program does to feed students. She is in constant contact with local media about school nutrition initiatives, including the traveling wagon she had built to go to parks, swimming pools and other areas where children congregate to support the summer meal program.
Markham is excited to share what she’s learned with employees after attending training sessions. She offers training regularly, setting up in-services and back to school workshops, and hosting the State Child Nutrition Management Academy. She is highly regarded for how closely she works with building staff and administrators to ensure things run smoothly throughout the district. Currently serving as an area representative for SNA-Kansas, Markham has helped local chapters get started and enhance active chapters’ efforts. She empowers employees to get their School Nutrition certificate and become SNA members.
For the past three years, Markham has served on the Legislative Committee at the state level and represented Kansas at SNA’s annual Legislative Action Conference in Washington, DC. She takes pride in her advocacy for child nutrition, “charging the hill” and sharing the needs of students with legislators. Markham also volunteers in her community, coaching cheerleading and helping to raise money for Relay For Life.
“Schools nutrition leaders are so proactive in sharing their knowledge of child nutrition with their staff,” said SNA President Gay Anderson, SNS. “Terri Jo’s dedication to her students’ health and staff development are exemplary. We’re happy to recognize her as a Director of the Year.”
The regional Director of the Year award was created to recognize school nutrition directors who exhibit an extraordinary commitment to their school meal programs. The directors are responsible for maintaining the quality of the program through student interaction, menu planning and a commitment to serving nutritious, tasty and well-balanced school meals. Through effective oversight of all aspects of foodservice operations, including budgeting, staffing, training, marketing and community outreach, school nutrition directors ensure the overall success of school meal programs.
On July 12, Markham will be honored during the Red Carpet Awards Ceremony at the School Nutrition Association’s 74th annual National Conference in Nashville, Tenn.
Markham said challenging days linger in the future.
“This is the first time we have served non-congregant meals. Before, all the children had to eat their meals at the location they received them. But the teachers and aides have worked extremely hard in making sure all their students had good meals,” she said. “We will continue to provide meals until July 31. This is where the real challenge will begin. We will have fewer sites over the summer, but we want to continue to provide our students with nutritious meals they can take home. This will be a huge challenge, but I am sure we will get it done.”