While working nearly 20 years ago at the La Salle County Nursing Home, Vicki McConnell’s goal of being a nurse was sidetracked.
“On a whim I decided to work in the kitchen. I started as a dishwasher,” said the Ottawa resident. “One day the cook didn’t show up and that’s when I started (in food service).”
Had the cook been working that day, who knows if McConnell — now director of nutrition for the Ottawa Elementary School District — ultimately would have been honored with a Regional Office of Education Excellence in Education award, as she was at a May 2 banquet at Celebrations 150, La Salle.
McConnell has worked nearly 10 years for OES, planning and cooking plenty of meals since that day at the nursing home, and was floored to receive an education award most often reserved for faculty members.
“Total surprise. To be recognized was really special,” she said.
For students and staff members at any of the district’s five schools, McConnell is more than just a lunch lady.
“Vicki is an upbeat, positive person. She’s a professional, respected by students, staff and the community. She’s always approachable and always wants to help,” said Melanie Conley, Shepherd Middle School assistant principal and the person who nominated McConnell.
Since 2015, school district employees who work with students became eligible for Excellence in Education awards. McConnell is the first food director to be honored.
“The success of our schools is dependent on all of the individuals involved in working with our students — food directors, kitchen staff, classroom aides, bus drivers, support staff, board members, teachers, administrators — everyone,” Chris Dvorak, regional superintendent for La Salle, Marshall and Putnam counties, said in an email interview.
“Vicki truly exemplifies excellence in education, and we were honored to be able to recognize Vicki for her efforts.”
Planning meals for children is quite a distance from food geared to seniors.
“I had to really rethink my thought process. Liver and onions were a big favorite at the nursing home but would never fly here,” McConnell said.
Feedback from students from kindergarten through eighth grade helps shape the school district’s culinary offerings, she explained.
“I welcome input. I try to think of myself as an out-of-the-box person," McConnell said. “They’re my customers and should get a say in what they eat.”
Since she has been on board at OES, McConnell has helped institute plenty of changes. When she first started, the United States Department of Agriculture’s free breakfast program was offered at just two of the district’s five schools.
“It’s been hard for families, especially if their kids are spread out in the district. I felt it should be available to all students,” McConnell said.
Now breakfast is served at McKinley, Lincoln and Jefferson elementary schools as well as Central Intermediate School and Shepherd. Four cooks are headquartered at Shepherd, with two servers at each building. Four Head Start programs get their meals from Shepherd.
A total of 1,500 breakfast and lunch meals are prepared on a daily basis.
“It’s quite busy every day, especially in the morning,” McConnell said.
Breakfast preparation starts at 6 a.m. During and after breakfast, lunch is prepared, and lunches need to be shipped at 9:15 a.m. McConnell is involved in planning, ordering menus, shopping for commodities and managing a steady flow of paperwork.
Outside her office and kitchen, McConnell is on the lookout for food trends to satisfy a generation of kids familiar with burgers, chicken nuggets and pizza-type items.
“I try to write the menus around what the kiddos would enjoy,” she explained. “We really just want the kids to try something new. If that goes over well it can go on the regular menu.
“If I see popular stuff in the community, I’ll try it. I’ll try anything once,” McConnell said with a laugh.
Among recent OES food offerings are Mexican “tornadoes” made with nutritionally approved ingredients, and smoothies filled with fruit. Try Day Fridays are days when new meals are introduced, and monthly birthday specials offer special dessert treats.
Being completely immersed in food service makes McConnell think of when she first began washing dishes at the nursing home.
“My supervisor said I didn’t like to cook and wouldn’t last a year,” she said.
Instead, she’s lasted, and thrived, for quite a few.