School Lunch Heroes

Carolann Begley

North Penn School District, Pennsylvania

This nutrition manager knows how to make healthy food fun for students. She loves to announce new menu options with her hands-free microphone and offer menu taste tests to students. Always present in the cafeteria, Carolann Begley has formed a strong relationship with the children she serves by taking time to listen to their opinions and understand their taste preferences. She also spearheads a food club that allows students to discuss menu selections and offer feedback about their cafeteria experiences. To further promote school meals, Begley hosts parents for breakfast to demonstrate the link between healthy school breakfasts and academic achievement. Her efforts have helped increase school breakfast participation by 35 percent each year for the past two years.

Ann Cooper

Boulder Valley School District, Colorado

Known as “the renegade lunch lady,” Chef Ann Cooper is also an author, educator, and public speaker. In 2009 she founded the Chef Ann Foundation, a nonprofit that helps schools get access to fresh, healthy food through grant programs and provides tools to implement changes in school food. Cooper currently serves as director of food services for Boulder Valley School District and is also a partner in Lunch Lessons LLC, a consultancy for school districts that are undergoing large-scale food changes. With more than 30 years of experience as a chef and 15 years in school food programs, Cooper has become a leading advocate for safe, sustainable food for children.  

Shelly Copeland, RD, SNS

Spring Independent School District, Texas

As the director of child nutrition services, Shelly Copeland has worked to bring healthy meals and food education to this Houston school district. She introduced a food education program that features hands-on activities that teach kids about portion sizes, healthy snacks, fitness, and gardening—all inside a school bus, symbolizing the connection between nutrition and education. Copeland also works closely with the culinary arts department, teaching aspiring chefs about school food service and developing healthy recipes. She gets everyone involved by participating in Student Health Advisory Council meetings, sharing school meal updates through social media, and inviting members of the community to sample the healthy foods being served in the district’s cafeterias.

Earliene Klapka

Harford County Public School District, Maryland

Visit North Harford High School’s cafeteria and you’ll be able to try special themed entrees including Italian, Asian, Mexican, and grill-style dishes thanks to nutrition manager Earliene Klapka, who aims to provide meals that are creative as well as nutritious. You’ll also find an express line stocked with healthy grab-n-go items, which Klapka established in response to students’ requests. An admirable leader, Klapka ensures that her food service staff has opportunities for professional growth through hands-on training. She’s also currently working with a planning committee to create a local composting system that uses food scraps from schools. 

Robert Rusan

Maplewood Richmond Heights School District, Missouri

Robert Rusan’s goal is to teach students where food comes from, how to prepare it, and how to put together wholesome meals—and he does it every day through a program he launched called “Teen Kitchen.” The district chef uses the schools’ gardens and his chicken coop to give students a hands-on learning experience, actively teaching them about gardening, harvesting, cooking, and cleaning. The middle school even has a beehive from which students collect honey, which Rusan uses as a sugar substitute in the foods he serves to students. Long after the school day is over, it’s not uncommon to find him planting, tending, and harvesting produce from the school garden. He also works with Share Our Strength’s “Cooking Matters” program, which helps families shop for and cook healthy meals on a budget.

Nancy Younglove

North Rose-Welcott Central School District, New York

In September 2012, food service director Nancy Younglove noticed a steady increase in the number of students that qualified for free or reduced-price meals. At the time, the North Rose-Welcott School District offered national breakfast and lunch programs as well as an after-school snack and weekend “backpack” meal program. But even with these initatives in place, she saw that children were still hungry. So Younglove, the food service director, created the Cougar Cupboard, a food pantry on the school campus. By designating it as a student activity club, she was able to increase participation and awareness. Younglove currently serves as executive director of the Cougar Cupboard, which is now used as a model for in-school pantry programs throughout the country.