SNF Scholarship Series: Kelsey Gartner, Nutrition and Garden Coordinator, Great Valley School District, Pennsylvania

When we asked Kelsey Gartner to describe what drew her to school foodservice, she paused for a few moments to consider the question.

“I went to the University of Delaware for my undergrad, and I was able to choose where to do my various rotations,” she explained. “I actually went to Great Valley, and thought it would be perfect if the foodservice department would take me for my [foodservice] rotation. It was one of the last rotations, and I hadn’t fallen in love with any of my [previous] rotations thus far; but as soon as I got here, to Great Valley, I knew it was what I wanted to do. The people were so unbelievably kind, and they cared about the kids immensely—I didn’t feel that passion anywhere else, and I guess that’s why I stayed!”

Hired first as a kitchen manager, today Kelsey is the Nutrition and Garden Coordinator for the Great Valley School District. A member of SNA since 2012, Kelsey credits her supervisor with introducing her to the association and motivating her to get involved.

“The supervisor here at Great Valley wants us to [join], and with good reason. I didn’t know anything about SNA before I came here, and got into school foodservice. My supervisor has been pretty involved with the state chapter, and she kind of brought me along. She was the exhibits chair, and then I became the exhibits chair, and she’s been instrumental in getting us involved in SNA. We’ve also been to a bunch of conferences, and it’s just a great organization.”

It wasn’t long after starting her work at Great Valley that Kelsey began thinking about going back to school—in fact, she started planning a return to school “pretty much immediately”, prompted in part by the new professional standards.

“If I want to become a director, I have to get my masters,” said Gartner. “My supervisor’s predecessor told me about a Masters of Leadership and Development at Penn State Great Valley and after a little research it seemed right up my alley. The program is all about developing your leadership potential so you can inspire and encourage others to become leaders; it’s about understanding who you are as a person, and how you interact with other people, and building them up as you build yourself up.”

Having begun the program two years ago, Kelsey put on a “full court press” in her last few semesters, taking every class she could to move the process along and graduate earlier. She’s on track to finish by January 2016, and she’s excited about the possibilities this degree presents in her school foodservice career.

“I’m learning a lot at Great Valley, especially with the regulations that changed a lot of things,” said Kelsey. “I’m hoping at some point to become a director eventually—that’s the plan!”

In the meantime, Kelsey works with her students on a daily basis to build on their increasing willingness to try new foods. As a dietitian, she knows that the increased fruits and veggies are a challenge for school nutrition professionals, but Gartners says the kids are warming up—and coming back to the lunch line.

“Here at Great Valley it’s always going to be about appealing to the kids, keeping up with their ever-changing palates. From year to year those tastebuds can change dramatically, and we have to keep them interested and occupied and coming back for more. In the beginning it was a challenge to wrap our heads around the [fruit and vegetable] regulations, but I’m seeing more bites taken out of the food. Maybe they aren’t eating the whole thing—yet—but they are willing to try it, a few extra bites are being taken, and that’s the first step of the process.”

Kelsey did mention one small regret in regard to her SNA scholarship—that she didn’t apply earlier! Even though she had checked out the scholarships last year, Kelsey didn’t feel like two weeks was enough time to complete her application so she skipped it—something she regrets in hindsight.

“I’m the kind of person who always gives herself three months to get things together, whether it’s for a grant or a scholarship or whatever—that’s just how I am!” laughed Gartner. “As I look through the [application] now I realize I could have put something together more quickly—it’s a very simple application process. So if you are [an SNA member] thinking about going back to school, just do it! Fill out the application, put everything you have into it. I didn’t think I had a chance to receive a scholarship, and I did and I was so grateful—it took a huge financial burden off of me this year.”

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