Jessica Shelly: Passionate producer

Jessica Shelly has added salad bars to Cincinnati Public Schools.

At a Glance

  • 34,000 students
  • 75% eligible for free and reduced meals
  • 50,000 meals served per day
  • 50% breakfast participation
  • 74% lunch participation 


Jessica Shelly has transformed food services at Cincinnati Public Schools by:

  • Adding salad bars to every school, which has increased produce consumption and enabled the district to easily meet new meal pattern regs
  • Focusing on customer service to create a bond with students
  • Creating a marketing program and implementing a revamped menu to increase participation at the high schools
  • Amassing a $2.7 million profit during the first year of the USDA’s new meal requirements  

During a trying time for school foodservice, Jessica Shelly is nothing but excited, especially about the challenges. Shelly is the food services director at Cincinnati Public Schools, which in 1898 became the first large school district to offer meals through the National School Lunch program.

“We’re really making an impact. It’s palpable,” Shelly says. “You can see it in the kids when they come through the line and say, ‘I’m so glad you have radishes back on the salad bar today.’ That’s the kind of shift that we’re making here. It’s super exciting to be part of the ride.”

“Her energy and excitement are her greatest qualities,” says Eric Zacarias, operations manager for the food services department. “She has a real passion for what she does. She shares it with the staff and gets them energized for change.”

Salad bars

There has been a lot of change since Shelly became director in 2010. One of those changes, and the thing Shelly says she is most proud of, is getting a salad bar in every school at no cost to the district. Through grants, partnerships and donations, each of the district’s 55 schools now has a salad bar.

“When salad bars were first being talked about [they were] being seen in urban, affluent school districts,” Shelly says. “We were able to implement one in every school in one year. That’s been a real wonderful way for us to introduce our kids to a variety of fresh vegetables every day.” 

Students at every level are offered an entrée, hot vegetable, two fruits, milk and a trip through the salad bar for lunch. 

“When the new [USDA] regulations came out, it was so easy for us to implement [them] because we had every vegetable subgroup offered every day,” Shelly recalls. “We were able to keep so many of the hot vegetables our kids love on our menus without having to sacrifice them to make sure we met all the different vegetable subgroups.” 

The salad bars have been so successful that Shelly attributes them to an increase in participation. 

Teaching nutrition

Shelly doesn’t buy into the notion that students won’t try new fruits and vegetables. “I don’t think the kids don’t take [new fruits and vegetables] if they haven’t tried them,” she says. “I think they don’t take them if we haven’t encouraged them.” 

That sentiment is behind another one of Shelly’s new initiatives: Mentoring Mondays. If a faculty member eats a school lunch at the table with students, Shelly gives the adult that meal for free. The goal is to get students to see their role models eating a healthy school meal, which will encourage them to do the same. “Studies have shown that in urban school districts the biggest role model in a kid’s life is not the parent, it’s the teacher,” Shelly says. “We were looking for that influence and guidance that works so well in the classroom to work in the lunchroom.” 

To further that educational experience, Shelly focused on customer service training. “I don’t call my workers lunchroom ladies. I call them lunchroom teachers,” she notes. “I think it’s infectious when your staff is proud of what they do and is confident in what they do. The kids then see how much pride they take in the service of their food. They realize that [the cafeteria workers] are doing this for them. It’s a connection.”

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