Yesterday, our Food Service Director for the South West Supervisory Union Maureen O’Neil, was featured on the front page of the Bennington Banner for winning the “Greet the Challenge” award given out by the School Nutrition Association-VT annually.
The award recognizes “excellence and outstanding achievement by school food service directors and managers whose efforts exemplify commitment to child nutrition and learning, and positive attitudes regarding the challenge of providing nutrition services to Vermont students.”
The award was given in large part due to Maureen’s extraordinary efforts to feed students when not required to do so during a teacher’s strike that lasted 9 days last October.
Please read below for the full article (as seen on the benningtonbanner.com). Great job Maureen, we love you!
SVSU food chief honored for feeding kids during strike
Wednesday October 17, 2012
BENNINGTON — Child nutrition was a serious concern during a nine-day teachers’ strike in Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union last October.
Half of the students in the supervisory union come from low-income families and rely on free meals from the schools, but with classes coming to an unexpected closure for two weeks, there was significant concern that those children would go hungry.
The supervisory union’s food service provider, The Abbey Group, was not required to step up, but Director Maureen O’Neil and her staff went above and beyond to find a way to get food to those who needed it most. The Abbey Group set up nine locations where children could pick up bag lunches and breakfast. After word spread, hundreds of children were picking up meals each day. When the strike ended, The Abbey Group had served 4,400 meals.
“People don’t budget to feed their kids during school time, or for daycare, so after a week we were getting swamped,” O’Neil recalled.
Before delivering any of those meals, O’Neil had to register the supervisory union as a summer program through the state and then coordinate with school principals and staff to help distribute the meals.
It was largely for O’Neil’s efforts during the strike that she was selected to receive the “Greet the Challenge” award from the Vermont branch of the School Nutrition Association. The award recognizes “excellence and outstanding achievement by school food service directors and managers whose efforts exemplify commitment to child nutrition and learning, and positive attitudes regarding the challenge of providing nutrition services to Vermont students.”
O’Neil was nominated by Laurie Lingner, an administrative assistant in the SVSU finance office, who told the story of how O’Neil kept the children on her mind as schools shut down for two weeks last fall.
“Our kids were fed during this time because of Maureen and her staff. The families were so grateful and I was so proud that our schools were able to offer this service. Maureen inspires people and makes them want to give our students the best,” Lingner wrote in her nomination letter.
Lingner also wrote about the transformation of The Abbey Group during O’Neil’s three-plus years as director during which time the program has gone from “good to great.”
O’Neil has been instrumental to increasing local produce in the nine SVSU schools through the Farm to School program, increasing breakfast participation and improving communication within the program, with local farmers and with the supervisory union business office.
Last year the schools served 154,000 breakfasts, which was nearly a 25 percent increase from 2010 when O’Neil began and 118,000 breakfasts were served. A large reason for that increase is The Abbey Group’s focus on spreading awareness of the importance of eating breakfast. There have also been a number of promotions offering free breakfast to all students (including the first three weeks of school this fall) that O’Neil and the SVSU Food Service Advisory Committee have been instrumental in starting.
With the statewide recognition, assistant director of The Abbey Group Stephanie Gates said others will get to learn about the tremendous job she and others who work closely with O’Neil have seen the past few years.
“She deserves this award because she just works so hard,” Gates said. “She goes above and beyond. She loves her job, she’s here for the kids, she’s here for the employees, she’s just here for all for us.”
In addition to her hard work, Gates, who has been with The Abbey Group since before O’Neil started, said the communication O’Neil has prompted has made everybody’s job more enjoyable.
“I think the communication, not just between the kitchens and the staff, but between the directors and business office, has just improved immensely. It’s the little stuff some days that has really changed,” she said.
The former owner of Alldays & Onions on Main Street and the Spiral Press Cafe in Manchester, O’Neil said she enjoys being in a school with the students every day and the opportunity to teach children the importance of eating well.
“I like teaching them to eat healthy and how important it is, and seeing kids thrive,” she said.
O’Neil will be honored at the SNA-VT Annual Meeting in Stowe on Thursday.