You may have already heard of our next School Nutrition Hero—she’s no stranger to the spotlight. Suellen Smith is the cafeteria manager at Zephyrhills High School and has worked for the Pasco County School District for her entire 27-year career in school nutrition. Starting as an assistant, Suellen was promoted to assistant manager within two years and stayed in that position for more than a decade before transferring to Zephyrhills High and assuming her duties as cafeteria manager for 1500 students.
Sue and her staff serve about 800 lunches and 400 breakfasts a day, but it’s her clothing closet, where students can borrow formal and dress clothes for any occasion, that has given her visibility and media exposure in her local community. Smith says the closet—which quickly grew from a few dresses to hundreds, plus menswear for the boys, and graduation caps and gowns for seniors—“almost happened by accident” and that community support has been critical in her ability to serve the students. Her ability to connect with kids and offer them guidance is just one of many reasons Pasco County Schools marketing director Amanda Musick nominated Suellen to be a 2016 School Nutrition Hero.
“I can call Sue any time, day or night, and ask her for a favor—whether I need to test paper products, or have her take pictures of the salad bar, or try a new promotion at her school—and she is willing to do anything. Seeing how she interacts with the students—it’s like she’s the mom they never had, or that cool aunt you know you can count on. I was with her recently and a student walked by; she yelled his name and asked if he’d filled out a scholarship [application] she knows he would be an excellent candidate for—he hadn’t—and then invited him to her office to fill out the application together. He agreed, and they set a time to meet. She keeps track, she wants to help them get to college, to be successful in life.”
Suellen, though grateful for the recognition, is quick to credit others when discussing her accomplishments—including the students themselves.
“I couldn’t do anything without the support of my co-workers, my lunch ladies; they are so good, and hold down the fort so I can do all of this crazy stuff. I also appreciate the community support and the support of the principal, because everyone is involved—it’s not just me, it’s a group effort. And the teenagers—I love the teenagers. They don’t know how close they are to [adulthood] and how radically things are going to change. I think when I tell them stuff it’s different from hearing it from a teacher or a guidance counselor—it’s a different comfort level.”
Beyond the clothes closet, Sue also stays busy providing baked goods for school events—she was getting ready to start baking for the local Kumquat Festival after our interview—and fundraisers. Excited to take her first trip to Washington, D.C., Smith is looking forward to learning more about the legislative process and of course, the Celebration of School Nutrition Heroes on Monday, February 29.
“I’m excited to see the big picture. I’ve done this for a long time, and we see the trickle-down effect, but I think seeing the process in action will be pretty neat. Our director of food service will be there to show me the ropes, and I look forward to coming back and sharing what I see and learn. And of course I am excited to meet the other award winners!”