Passionate. Hard-working. Creative.
These are just a few of the adjectives Chris Burkhardt’s colleagues use to describe their dedicated friend and co-worker. One of five 2016 School Nutrition Hero Award winners, Burkhardt was nominated by Michelle Bott, SNS, Schwan’s Food Service, who shared the reason she submitted his name for consideration.
“Chris is an honest person who truly cares about child nutrition. He’s a positive person with a can-do spirit, paired with out-of-the-box thinking; when I go to work with him it’s about finding solutions. He’s always trying something new and different, and he believes he can do everything—he’s a kindred spirit!—and you have to make sure that those qualities are being recognized.”
Those sentiments were echoed by Linda Eichenberger, SNS, who first met Chris at a local SNA chapter meeting. She recalled their first encounter eight years ago in Ohio:
“It’s so unusual to have a man in school foodservice, so he stands out just by being a man, but I would also say that we just had a connection—which sounds so corny! He is highly intelligent, he has great ideas, and his self-confidence helps him get out and help other people—and Chris is always helping other people.”
Burkhardt has been the Director of Child Nutrition and Wellness at Lakota Local Schools in Ohio for the last eight years, and has worked in school foodservice since graduating from college with a foodservice management degree. After cutting his teeth running the foodservice program for Eastern Kentucky University—which included operations for a K-12 school as well as the college dining services—Chris decided to focus his attention on serving younger students.
“I loved running the K-12 school when I was at Eastern Kentucky University. Kids get so excited about their lunch or breakfast! College students can take it or leave it, some of them might give you an inkling if they like something, but it’s nothing like elementary school kids whose eyes light up when they see their favorite food and suddenly it’s the best day in the world for them.”
Also important to Chris: making an impact on students’ nutritional habits at an earlier stage than college, and being a wellness ambassador for everyone in his school community. In his role as wellness director, Burkhardt has written grants to provide biometric screenings, flu shots, and health and wellness assessments for district employees. He also started a Pedometer Challenge for employees that worked its way down to the student level as well.
“We have a very robust wellness program with about twenty members sitting in on our monthly meetings. One of our big things last year was the Pedometer Challenge, with a goal of 10,000 steps a day, and it started with employees but made it to the student level—at the elementary level it prompted some schools to form walking clubs, where students were able to do a lap around the park and walk back to school. It also prompted some kids to start looking at programs like Girls on the Run.”
Chris’s dedication to health extends to his greater community as well. He is currently serving on the board of Reach Out Lakota, a non-profit providing food, clothing, and household items to low-income families, where he established the Backpack Sign-up Program which provides school supplies to students from low-income families. Further, Chris has spearheaded efforts to help more low-income families gain access to fresh fruits and vegetables after realizing there was a void of fresh produce in the food distributed to food bank clients.
“Like most food banks they get a lot of perishable foods. We know that even if clients are on food stamps or getting supplemental assistance, they are probably not buying fresh fruits and vegetables because they are so expensive. Shopping the perimeter of the store is the healthiest, but it’s also the most expensive.
“Through our buying power with the school district, we’re able to [leverage] that for the food bank to get fresh fruits and vegetables. Anecdotally I hear from kids and parents all the time that kids are so happy to eat the apples, carrots, oranges—for us it’s been a great program.”
While those around him see him as a hero, and he’s grateful for the recognition, Chris is quick to credit those around him for his success, and looks forward to this year’s LAC in Washington, D.C., where school nutrition professionals from around the country will meet to bring their needs and concerns before lawmakers.
“Before school nutrition I didn’t consider myself very political; I wasn’t one of those guys who wrote letters, or had meetings with a representative, but being in school nutrition gives you a unique opportunity to shape your business by talking with those individuals who make those decisions. Having those conversations, and seeing them reflected into policy, it’s phenomenal for me to be a little cog in that huge wheel—to have my voice heard and make a little bit of a difference.”
We salute Chris for making a big difference in his school and his community. Congratulations on being selected as a 2016 School Nutrition Hero!