Feeding Kids is a Work of Heart
Vicki and a team of thirteen are the masterminds and charm behind preparing and delivering breakfast and lunch to Central Intermediate, McKinley, Lincoln, and Jefferson Elementary schools on top of their home base at Shepherd Middle. Whether a cook in the kitchen, a server to dish it out, custodians to help load and unload the trucks, or a driver to haul food from building to building, each team member breaks a sweat every school day, fulfilling the enormous nutritional needs of the district. At 9:30 a.m. sharp, the trucks are already loaded with hot and cold carts and rolling out to the other schools to ensure that the community's future leaders are presently eating well.
"You never know what a student's situation is outside of school," Vicki tells us, "We don't know if they have food insecurities in their household… our job is not only to give them a nutritious meal, but to give it to them with a friendly smile and in a pleasant atmosphere. That's just our goal." She muses on this for a moment and then adds, "We don't care what kind of household they come from. If they're hungry, we feed them, because children are hungry all the time."
A lifelong Ottawa local herself, Vicki has lunch lady energy in her blood. Her mother was one of the district's first servers for the school lunch program when it started in the late 1970s. Between then and now, she's married her high school sweetheart, followed as her husband pursued a career in the military, and came right back to her roots to continue her family's legacy of providing kids with the best nutrition possible. If you need any more convincing that she's a food service wizardess, consider the fact that all the servers at her wedding reception were tried-and-true "lunch ladies." "They were used to putting food on trays," she says with a laugh, "So they just set up my buffet at my wedding reception."
With three children of her own and two grandchildren (going on three) who attend Ottawa schools, Vicki has remained steadfast in meeting nutritional goals for children and teaching them the importance of choice. Her first act as Director of Nutrition was a push for breakfast in all buildings, something that's become a standard staple today. She's become known for her theme days, such as "Mini Monday," where everything on the menu is miniature (think small tacos and hot dogs), and "Try Day Friday," which prompts students to try something never served before. She also encourages kids to make their own menu proposals (though she has to do a fair share of editorial work to ensure they meet basic nutritional requirements). "I love any kind of feedback from kids. I have a drawer full of stuff with notes, thank you cards, things just on construction paper," she says with a trademark elation in her voice, "Any kind of feedback from the kiddos absolutely makes my day."
We often ask our interview subjects what they'd do if they had the opportunity to use a magic wand, and Vicki's answer is, while not surprising, still wholesome and authentic to her mission: "I would feed these kids, all of them, free every day. That's a very simple one for me." She prides herself on the quality of food that her program serves and enjoys it when parents can see exactly what's served to their children.
She has sky-high words of praise for the family-oriented schools in her district and would like for that focus to carry on. "I would say, as a parent, or anybody in the community, just support the kids and encourage them," she stresses, "Encourage them to get involved and encourage them to participate and encourage them to socialize." We'll take a serving of that and seconds if they're available, especially if Vicki is behind the vittles.
We don't care what kind of household they come from. If they're hungry, we feed them, because children are hungry all the time.
Contrary to what we may learn watching kitchen-themed reality TV, some of the best minds in food innovation aren't sweating it out in specialty restaurants. When it comes down to it, elementary school kids are notoriously picky and less likely to be thrilled by what's on their lunch plates. It takes an awareness of student needs and clever, resourceful thinking to keep kids well-fed and satisfied. Vicki McConnell, nutritionist extraordinaire for the Ottawa School District, rises to that challenge, and boy, when she's at the helm, does she deliver.