Member Spotlights


October: Shaun Sawko


How to Connect with Your District - Even If It's 200,000 Students Large

For this month’s Spotlight Member, we decided to step aside and let Shaun Sawko do the talking. Shaun took the time to personally give us a view into his district and the amazing ways they are bringing students and faculty around the cafeteria table.

“My name is Shaun Sawko and I am a registered dietitian for Hillsborough County Student Nutrition Services. Hillsborough has 200,000 students and almost 240 schools.

With a district this large, we are constantly trying to think of ways that we can better our program and seek out avenues to do so. These efforts include cooking demonstrations, Try-It-Tuesdays, and our annual food show where we test new products for around 200 students. The more we involve our students in our decision making process, the more participation we see.

For key stakeholders in the district, like school board members, we have a new event called “The Student Nutrition Experience.” We set up tables that feature what we do, what we serve, and why we serve it. We use this event to show them this is not your old square pizza anymore. If you have the buy-in from your stakeholders, it makes your job so much easier when you are trying to make larger scale change.

We are constantly trying to bring new concepts and ideas to our school. No matter what the avenue is with these events, the result is the same – helping us to create a menu that is focused on student-approved items.

1. Shaun, can you first introduce yourself? We would love to hear about you, your role at Hillsborough County School District, and your career path.

My name is Shaun Sawko. I am a registered dietitian for Hillsborough County Student Nutrition Services. I have been a dietitian for almost two years now. I completed my undergrad at UNF in Jacksonville, FL and began working at WIC in Tampa, FL after an unsuccessful match during my senior year of college. After two years at WIC, I decided to try again to match an internship and ultimately decided to apply to a distance dietetic internship since I had been able to network and make connections with dietitians in the area. I applied and was accepted into BGSU’s coordinated dietetic internship and master’s program. I began my rotations the following year. I had always thought I wanted to do clinical and become a CDE because diabetes has always interested me, but it was not until my rotation with Hillsborough County Student Nutrition that I found my real passion. I split my food service rotation into two sections, School Nutrition and Hospital Food Service, to give myself more diversity and better understanding of both. I did my School Nutrition rotation first and loved it so much that I ended my Hospital Food Service rotation a week early so I could come back to the schools. After my internship, Student Nutrition Services hired me on in a temporary position while they worked to create my current position. One thing that is great is that with my current position being brand new, I have a say in shaping it in the direction with what I want. My title is Nutrition Coordinator and my director has made it clear that my focus should be on all aspects of Nutrition Education and I could not be happier.

2. Share a little background info on your district.

Hillsborough County is the eighth largest county in the nation. We have around 200,000 students with almost 240 schools. We are an estimated $150 million operation with a variety of programs from free universal breakfast, to lunch, to super snack/supper, to 39 FFVP sites, to 53 Breakfast in the Classroom sites, and more. We are constantly trying to think of ways that we can better our program and seek out avenues to do so.

3. What types of activities is your district doing to involve students? How do these activities impact your program?

We have a bunch of activities in obtaining feedback from our students. These efforts include: one time product testing with our students, cooking demonstrations where we test concepts, our annual food show where we test new products in different concepts for around 200 students, or Try-It-Tuesdays where students can test a few concepts that we would like to see for potential side items. No matter what the avenue is with these events, the result is the same – helping us to create a menu that is focused on student-approved items. The more we involve our students in our decision making process, the more participation during our meals we will be able to see.

4. Tell us a little about the food show that you host. How does this help your menu and participation? How do you collect data? How many people are involved in the food show?

Our food show is with 200 students broken into two days, with one day being elementary and the other being secondary. We originally had both groups on one day, but we thought that the elementary students could feel intimidated to be next to much older students. We have our vendors submit not just their new products, but concepts behind the new products. It’s great to have the food show ran this way because we are able to utilize the vendor’s concepts in our menus, if they are successful. It not only allows us to test new concepts to our students, but provides us with ideas and directions on what the students would like to see. We are able to create online surveys that ask a variety of questions to the students to gage how successful the dishes would be if implemented in the district.

5. How do you build a relationship with your school board and faculty? How does your department's relationship with the school board/faculty impact your program and participation?

We try to market to our stakeholders on a normal basis. If you have the buy-in from your stakeholders, it makes your job so much easier when you are trying to make larger scale change. We just started a new event called “The Student Nutrition Experience”. We set up tables that featured our dishes and education behind who we are, what we do, what we serve, why we serve it, and why what we do is so important. Unfortunately in this industry there are a lot of misguided ideas of what school nutrition is, so a lot of what we try to do at the district level is all about changing perception. This is not your old square pizza anymore and we try to educate as many people as we can about it.

6. Have you seen a shift in food trends at all this year? Any new products for your Try it Tuesdays? How do you get your kids to eat more fruits and vegetables?

Our district chef is always trying to be on the cutting edge of what our students want. One thing that helps with that is that he has two elementary aged children who are very vocal about what they like and do not like. The chef is not afraid to admit that he steals ideas and concepts from restaurants around town. Sometimes our recipe and concept ideas come out of necessity. We had an abundance of peas and carrots, which we were able to combine a few more ingredients and create a chicken pot pie recipe. This year we have an abundance of peppers and onions, so we came up with the concept of Ropa Vieja and Philly cheesesteaks.

7. Any big NSLW events coming up at Hillsborough?

I actually just got back from a cooking demonstration and nutrition presentation at one of our middle schools. We have them planned all week throughout our district. I am observing one tomorrow and performing another one Thursday.

8. What are your goals for this year? Any new ideas or concepts that you are bringing to the schools?

Goals? To get through the school year, haha. We are constantly trying to bring new concepts and ideas to our school. The most exciting project we are currently working on is a partnership with a local non-profit that does health education. I worked with their team to tweak their nutrition education lesson to focus on connecting their lessons back to our cafeteria and am quite pleased with the result. We have created a contract with them to provide the lesson to 320 different classes at 80 different schools.

December: Alice Jo Rainville, PhD, RD, CHE, SNS, FAND


Alice Jo Rainville, PhD, RD, CHE, SNS, FAND, is a professor of nutrition and dietetics at Eastern Michigan University. She is past chair of the SNS DPG and an experienced school nutrition researcher. Alice Jo has completed many applied research studies with the Institute of Child Nutrition (ICN). She led projects that created ICN best practice resources for recess before lunch and classroom breakfast. Additional school nutrition research topics have included effectiveness of classroom breakfast, barriers to recess before lunch, and nutrition information at the point of selection in high schools. These ICN research results have practical application for school districts across the nation.

SNS DPG members may want to read and use a Current Issues review Alice Jo and a graduate student, Sarah Minaya, wrote on school lunches compared to lunches from home. Click here to read How Nutritious Are Children’s Packed School Lunches? A Comparison of Lunches Brought From Home and School Lunches from The Journal of Child Nutrition and Management.

Alice Jo is part of a team of professors from EMU who were recently awarded a $2.9 million dollar REACH grant from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to promote health for underserved Asian Americans in Michigan.

The SNS DPG is extremely grateful for Dr. Rainville’s efforts in gathering extensive research that supports the importance of school nutrition programs.

January: Laura Thomas, MED, RD, LD, FAND


Laura Thomas, MED, RD, LD, FAND, with her many years of diverse experience in the field of nutrition, has recently helped USDA FNS in creating an extensive 7 chapter tool that will help districts receive the technical guidance that they need to be successful. The Menu Planner for School Meals is a comprehensive guide for local school nutrition professionals to assist them with developing healthy, safe, affordable, and appealing school meals and snacks that meet the meal pattern requirements. Laura has dedicated her career to creating innovative and award winning nutrition education programs.
Laura’s expertise and passion for child nutrition has led her to create a plethora of education programs, including The Body Walk and A Taste of Space (IDC) and USDA project Grow It! Try It! Like It! Most of us can agree that as program administrators or students, we find ourselves with very hectic days and little time to do extensive research or create informational materials. Thanks to school nutrition professionals like Laura, we are able to rely on her materials for guidance. Click here to read more.

September: Stephanie Simms Hodges, MS, RDN


Explore the Field and Forge Your Own Path Along the Way

One of the many appealing aspects of school nutrition is the abundance of diverse career paths, all of which contribute to making a lasting impact on children's health and access to nutritious foods. School nutrition offers the opportunity to gain a variety of experiences and growth through different roles in our field. There is even the opportunity to create your own job in school nutrition. This school year is a very new year for Stephanie Simms Hodges, MS, RDN, because she is officially her own boss, starting an exciting new business that will provide support to schools across the country.

Stephanie is the founder of The Nourished Principles, a consulting business that offers a variety of services to school nutrition programs including grant writing and implementation, training, menu compliance, wellness policy consulting, nutrition education programming, and marketing and social media consulting. Stephanie began her career as an AmeriCorps VISTA, assisting a non-profit in their implementation of school based programs that focused on healthy eating and physical activity. She has also held positions with Share Our Strength and the Department of Education.

Thinking about starting your own business? Stephanie shared with us the hopes and fears that come with being an entrepreneur.

“After seeing the opportunities within the field of school nutrition through previous positions and speaking with individuals within the field, I decided to take a leap of faith and start my own business. My goal is to be a resource for anyone involved in child nutrition programs and ensure that each child is well nourished. I not only work with school nutrition directors, but I assist non-profits, government agencies, and the private sector to develop and implement programs and policies to support children’s health inside and outside the school environment. With every new endeavor there is a fear that you won’t be successful or you won’t meet your goals but hard work, passion, experience, and knowledge allows you to overcome that fear. I also have an INCREDIBLE support system of family, friends, and colleagues which is invaluable!

Ten years from now, I hope that The Nourished Principles is assisting child nutrition programs across the country (maybe even the world?!) to empower children to make healthy choices and to ensure each child nutrition program is as successful as they can be.”

Learn more about Stephanie Simms Hodges and The Nourished Principles!

The content you are trying to view is for members of the School Nutrition Services dietetic practice group.