Wapakoneta City Schools food service supervisor receives regional award

WAPAKONETA — The national, non-profit School Nutrition Association has named Lori McKean Brace, Food Service Supervisor for Wapakoneta City Schools, Ohio, the Mideast regional Director of the Year. The award recognizes the extraordinary contributions of school nutrition directors who manage effective school meal programs providing healthy, appetizing meals to students.

Lori McKean Brace has been with Wapakoneta City Schools for more than two decades, working to promote school nutrition to a higher level, with a passion for helping new supervisors succeed.

“The first thing you got to realize, you’re not going to make everybody happy. 100% of the people are not going to eat your food and that’s okay. Because food is emotional. Food means a lot of things to a lot of different people. So it’s okay if people want to pack their kid’s lunches. One thing you got to know is that your food has to be things that kids want to eat. It has got to be nutritional.”

When she arrived in the district, the food service account was in the red and had received a loan from the district. Through her budgeting skills, menu revamps and labor adjustments the department was able to pay back the loan. For the past 24 years, the Food Service Department has been operating in the black while keeping lunch prices as low as possible for the community. She has secured raises and attendance bonuses for food service employees, helping to reduce absenteeism and improve staff morale.

“You know the kids are our customers and that’s how we’re going to treat them. Treating them as customers is how you have to treat them because food service is not subsidized by the general fund. Food service stands alone. These kids have to eat or you’re not going to have a business.

“The favorite meal here is the popcorn chicken mashed potato bowl. I saw KFC had this popcorn chicken bowl and I’m thinking, ‘we can do that.’ So they love this. Two years ago after graduation the superintendent called to tell me that it came up in two honors speeches how they were going to miss the chicken mashed potato bowl.”

When schools closed in March of 2020, a plan was immediately put in place to deliver meals to 11 sites, three times a week. Under McKean Brace’s guidance, the Food Service Department prepared those meals, which were delivered by administration and bus drivers with the help of volunteers. Today, the district has an incredible 82% participation rate for lunch.

“The board of education is very supportive about everything. I went to them in May and told them we need to keep breakfasts free because so many kids took advantage of breakfast. We all know the data for 25 years that breakfast helps these kids get a good start to their day. That helps with discipline, the classroom attention, their learning and test results. We’re doing over 250 breakfasts at the middle school, over 100 at the high school and over 200 at both Wapakoneta and Cridersville elementary schools.”

McKean Brace has worked with a farmer to get five acres of sweet corn grown for the school food service department. The farmer delivers the corn to the school and students get involved by shucking it. She oversees a school garden for students to take care of, and those vegetables are used in school salad bars. McKean Brace is hoping to secure a Farm to School bid through Ohio’s SWEPC Commodity Cooperative in the upcoming school year’s budget.

“Going forward though, I mean things still aren’t looking very good for fall. Our bid prices are crazy. It’s a business within the school. We buy all of our equipment, all the food, pay for all the benefits, all the wages. But the school is big — the administration and the board — big supporters of the cafeteria.”

“I look at this award and I’m very glad and everybody says it was well deserved. But I’d say of any year every food supervisor, director, if they made it through this year deserve this one because it was rough. It was rough.”