Landstown cafeteria manager wins regional honor – The Virginian-Pilot

VIRGINIA BEACH — Convincing high school students to take even a bite of a new food isn’t easy, especially if they’re sleep deprived.

Bonnie Gassett loves trying.

During his four years as cafeteria manager at Landstown High School, Gassett introduced unique breakfast and lunch items, stocked vending machines with fresh fruit and sandwiches, and displayed a stationary bike with a pedal smoothie blender.

For her efforts, Gassett was named the 2022 Southeast Regional Director of the Year by the School Nutrition Association, a national nonprofit that advocates for healthy foods and nutrition education in cafeterias. She also won a Virginia School Breakfast Award from the state Department of Education.

“You have to constantly learn and change to do this job, which I really enjoy,” Gassett says. “I love the children, the teachers, the staff – how schools become families.”

In June, Gassett was promoted to cafeteria manager for Virginia Beach City Public Schools, a position overseeing several schools. Paula Johnson, Principal of Landstown High, has no doubt that she will continue to fight to ensure children get the right fuel to learn well.

“Bonnie is always there for the kids and is a real team player,” Johnson says. “She is ready to think outside the box and do things differently. She really cares.

Gassett, 46, never thought she would work in the restaurant business, although she enjoys cooking and entertaining at home. Born at Portsmouth Naval Medical Center, she moved frequently until her family moved to Virginia Beach in 1990. She graduated from Kellam High School and worked in property management, then as an administrative assistant at a school of kitchen.

When Gassett became a single mother, she wanted a job that would allow her to be with her son, now 12, before and after school. She started as a cafeteria assistant in Virginia Beach about 10 years ago, working at elementary schools in Diamond Springs and Trantwood before moving into leadership positions at Hermitage Elementary and then Landstown.

“I immediately loved school nutrition,” she says. “It’s so much fun bonding with kids through food.”

At Landstown, a large school of 2,200 students, Gassett typically fed about 1,200 teenagers a day for lunch and 500 for breakfast. She added scratch menu items such as cinnamon crunch breakfast cake, Mexican lasagna, turkey barbecue, flatbread pizza and tomato soup, encouraging her staff to offer students small samples of these dishes as well as vegetables.

“Even though pizza and fries were still the most popular, we made progress,” she notes. “A lot of broccoli bites were taken.”

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Meanwhile, at two new vending machines, Gassett has helped develop options such as Thai chicken wraps, vegetable wraps with feta cheese and fresh salads, all replenished daily. Students could buy food by swiping their school ID card, avoiding queues at the cafeteria. “They’re always empty at the end of the day,” Johnson reports.

For National School Breakfast Week in March, Gassett borrowed a “Blender Bike” from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Brock Environmental Center and had a cafeteria assistant ride it to make fresh fruit smoothies at the request.

In 2020, Gassett involved students with special needs in a meal delivery service for classroom teachers juggling in-person and virtual students during the COVID-19 pandemic. She also created an outdoor food pick-up station for families with students at home.

Other efforts have included giving staff members personalized aprons, leading an effort to hide rocks painted with positive messages for students, and planning an outdoor garden. “She serves as a role model for other cafeteria managers,” said SNA President Beth Wallace.

Gassett’s unexpected career continued to evolve. Last year, she completed an associate’s degree in general studies from Tidewater Community College, with plans to study for a bachelor’s degree in dietetics and applied nutrition in an online program to be determined.

“I’m excited about what’s ahead of me,” she says. “It is important to me that all children have access to good quality food.”

Alison Johnson,

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