SNF’s Kathleen Stitt Award Honors a Legacy of Learning

Each year, the School Nutrition Foundation presents the Kathleen Stitt Award to a graduate student or faculty member participating in the Child Nutrition Showcase at the School Nutrition Association’s Annual National Conference. The $500 award prize is used to help defray the cost of travel to attend ANC, where the winner presents their poster alongside their colleagues.

We recently had the good fortune to sit down and chat with not only the 2015 Stitt Award Winner, Lacy Stephens of Bozeman, Montana, but also Dr. Kathleen Stitt herself, to talk about the growing importance of research in the fields of child and school nutrition. We also spoke to Shirley Watkins, a former SNA President who worked with Dr. Stitt and saw firsthand her dedication to improving and expanding research in the field of child nutrition.

Dr. Kathleen Stitt

Kathleen Stitt earned a Ph.D in Nutrition at Ohio State, was a department chair at the University of Alabama for fifteen years, and stayed active in any number of professional organizations (like SNA and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics).  Dr. Stitt says that among her many achievements, her students remain her proudest accomplishment.

“I taught thousands in undergraduate and graduate [tracks], and had the opportunity to teach many outstanding students,” said Dr. Stitt, who also directed numerous masters theses while publishing more than two dozen papers herself. It was her own experience as a student seeking funds to attend conferences that inspired her to create the award that bears her name.

“One of the biggest challenges in getting people to attend professional conferences is the cost. I was able to receive awards in graduate school, so I felt like I needed to help others in that regard,” explained Dr. Stitt. “Many master degree students need [financial] help to present their research, and I hope the award encourages more graduate students to go to professional meetings.” The importance of professional conferences should not be underestimated, continued Dr. Stitt.

“The contact with other people, other ideas, other information—some don’t realize the importance of that. I felt like with my background I could bring something to the School Nutrition Association, and this award will I hope continue that.”

2015 Kathleen Stitt Award Winner Lacy Stephens of Bozeman, MT

Lacy Stephens is our 2015 Stitt Award Winner. Traveling from Montana to Salt Lake City, the Stitt Award allowed Lacy to attend ANC 2015 and present her work, entitled, “Outcomes of the Montana Cook Fresh Culinary Workshop.” Lacy also received the poster research award at the conference. “That was really cool and unexpected, so I have to mention it,” she laughed, when we chatted by phone. Lacy recently completed her dietetic internship and took her exam; she is now a Registered Dietitian, and working toward finishing her master’s degree in sustainable food systems at Montana State University.

Lacy is shown here alongside Kate Bark, RD, LN, SNS of Montana Team Nutrition.

Lacy is shown here alongside Kate Bark, RD, LN, SNS of Montana Team Nutrition.

Lacy partnered with Montana Team Nutrition to determine ways to support the use of whole, fresh foods in school nutrition programs. “We started with preliminary research—interviews, as well as a survey of school food managers and other key stakeholders in Montana—to get their perspectives on the challenges of using whole, fresh foods,” explained Lacy. “We wanted to know what skills, equipment, and resources do SN professionals need to use whole, fresh food? We also looked at stakeholders already experiencing success to frame out the key skills and elements [of their work].” Montana Team Nutrition was integral to her work—her project was a collaboration with Aubree Roth, MS and Katie Bark, RD, LN, SNS, who co-authored the poster with Lacy, along with her advisor Carmen Byker Shanks, Ph.D. from Montana State.

They set out to create a culinary class modeled after Maryland’s Culinary Boot Camp. “They were really generous sharing their information and resources,” said Lacy. “Using our research and their template, we identified those key skills that are relevant to our population here in Montana.” The class was implemented in four locations around Montana, with 53 participants completing the classes as well as the pre- and post-class surveys. The feedback after the classes was hugely positive, says Lacy.

“Participant responses show that they were really encouraged; they were positive about the work we were doing, and they had a lot of fun, which we feel is really important—in training especially,” she explained. “We looked at things like how the class influenced their knowledge of, their attitude toward, and their confidence in using whole, fresh foods.” The results were exciting.

“We found a significant change in their knowledge relating to whole, fresh foods, as well as their intention to use them and in their confidence in doing so—we really felt we achieved our goals in doing that class,” said Lacy.

As she moves on to a new position with the National Farm-to-School Network, Lacy plans to continue her work connecting people with food; specifically, “food that’s good for the Earth, good for communities, and good for people.”

“SNA really promotes the importance of research, of building networks and using resources—connecting people on the ground with those things at the state and national level to create opportunities,” said Lacy. “I’m so grateful to SNA and SNF for supporting research, which is hugely important to the work that school nutrition professionals do—and for the opportunity to share my work at the national level, which is why I applied for the award to attend ANC. It was an honor to receive the Kathleen Stitt Award. I hoped I expressed my passion for research in my application. It’s good to know that other people share that passion, and that there are others who recognize it.”

Shirley Watkins, SNA Past President

When asked to describe her former colleague, SNA past president Shirley Watkins had the following to say: “Kathleen brought this focus on research to the table in the 1980s, and having that kind of foresight and vision at that time was incredible—she was so far advanced to make that happen.”

Watkins is a school nutrition expert in her own right. In addition to serving as SNA vice-president and president, Shirley was also director of nutrition for Memphis City Schools, served as president of the Tennessee chapter of the SNA, served as Deputy Undersecretary of USDA from 1993-1997, and was promoted to Undersecretary in 1997.

“I have a long history with SNA—I was president at the time we moved from Denver to Virginia,” recalled Shirley. “Kathleen Stitt was the chair of the College & Universities section while I was on the board. She was a dedicated professional who believed that helping school foodservice directors and [SNA] members to enhance their educational experiences was vital and necessary. She worked so hard with the research journal to ensure we had good articles, and dedicated herself to ensuring that the research was accurate and relevant to what was going on in the community at the time.”

During a time when school nutrition professionals weren’t given much thought at all, Dr. Stitt was championing greater opportunities for all. “During a time when people thought the school nutrition community wasn’t interested in enhancing themselves—which was not the case—Kathleen was bringing people in the college sector into the school nutrition community. That was an awesome challenge, but she worked to raise the visibility of the SN program to help people how they can make an impact in their communities.”

The Stitt Award provides vital assistance for graduate students to pursue opportunities to share their work, and Shirley Watkins expressed her appreciation for the woman behind it.

“Kathleen is a phenomenal woman,” she declared at the end of our telephone call. “We were glad to be associated with her, to have her on the team providing leadership. Kathleen is a true leader, and was appreciated for her quiet sense of humor—a quiet woman, with so much to give.”

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