- Oak Tree Elementary
Serving up smiles with Nutrition Services
Lifelong memories are made in school cafeterias. If you ask, most adults can recall a favorite school meal or lunchroom encounter from their childhood. These cherished mealtimes, whether breakfast or lunch, play a significant role in the lives of K-12 students. At Gilbert Public Schools, our Nutrition Services professionals are dedicated to providing the best experience possible for the district’s more than 33,000 students.
“What you are contributing to someone’s day is huge,” said Pam Sosa, Nutrition Services manager at Playa del Rey Elementary.
Everyday Sosa and her team are hard at work in the Sun King Cafe preparing, cooking, and distributing meals to students. The meals served on GPS campuses have been carefully researched and crafted to provide students with the nutrients needed to fuel learning in the classroom. This process begins with the department’s “Offer versus Serve” policy.
“Offer versus Serve means we can give students three vegetables and three fruits to choose from, and we don’t care which one they take, as long as they take one. There is more of a chance for them to choose something they like and actually eat it, rather than throwing it away,” said Natalie Tenney, Director of Nutrition Services.
As a result, GPS students gain the knowledge and power to make healthy, balanced food choices. School breakfast and lunch periods also provide a safe space for students to form new connections and friendships. Nutrition Services workers do their best to make the most of these interactions by ensuring each student feels special.
“My favorite time was always when the kids came. When I was a manager, I would always tell my crew - it’s showtime,” Tenney said.
Jonathan Jimenez, an area manager with Nutrition Services, would agree.
“That’s also what motivates me to work, because we are making a difference in a student’s life. We may not know their situation, but at least from what we can see, they are happy to come grab their lunch and have a conversation with us,” he said.
In the fall, Jimenez will celebrate 10 years with the department. After his high school graduation, he began working four hour shifts to make money. He spent about a year at a junior high school before a position in management opened up. He continued on until he reached his current position. Now Jimenez oversees kitchens at 10 GPS elementary schools.
“I hope to one day go on to become a senior supervisor or even a director,” he said.
Employees say there are many benefits to working with Nutrition Services, including no weekend, evening, or holiday shifts. Summer is also optional, which means workers are available to travel or spend time with their families. The flexible schedule is the right fit for parents, guardians, grandparents, or community members looking for some part-time or full-time work.
“The opportunities and the work environment – everything is just perfect,” Sosa said, “I started when my daughter was in kindergarten. I thought it would be a segway into getting more marketable skills, because I had been at home for five years.”
Shannon Hawkins works with Sosa as an assistant manager at Playa del Rey. She enjoys the camaraderie among the staff, the fun work atmosphere, and the ability to balance her job and family life.
“I like that it works with my kids’ schedules. I’m off when they are off. I’m home when they are home. It makes it really nice as a mom to just be there when they need you,” Hawkins said.
Nutrition Services professionals across GPS campuses are also given the opportunity to connect with one another through meetings, department events, and by joining the School Nutrition Association of Arizona. The professional organization is part of a national group that supports the needs of 59,000 school nutrition workers across the country. Members are given access to continuing education credits, conferences, networking events, and more.
“In food service, the opportunities are endless. You can start off as a four-hour worker and go higher. It’s as far as you want it to go,” Sosa said.
These benefits add to what some already consider a rewarding job. Employees believe those special moments when they hear directly from students are what matter the most.
"A kid recently came up out of nowhere and said, "I just want to thank you and your team for serving us lunch." That kind of blew me away. It was very touching," Jimenez said.