For the first time in a quarter-century, when Rowena Nickell woke up Friday morning she didn’t have to consider what she would be preparing for breakfast or lunch. Throughout 25 years as the food service director for the Sedalia School District 200, Nickell has been responsible for overseeing the preparation of an average of 6,800 breakfasts and lunches each school day. Nickell will retire effective June 30.
During her 25 years of service, the needs of the district’s students have always been at the forefront of her thoughts.
“I still love my job but I just think it’s time,” Nickell said Wednesday morning as she was helping to fill lunch bags for students as part of the district's food program. “I’m 66 and a half years old. I think that’s a good round number to leave on.”
Nickell, who was hired as the food service director in 1995, will be replaced by Debra Wenig, currently a district food service administrative assistant, according to a news release. Wenig, who has experience running meal services for church, preschool and daycare operations, worked closely with Nickell the past two years.
It is, of course, the students and her co-workers Nickell said she will miss the most.
“I’m turning the program over to good hands and that’s a relief,” Nickell said fondly. “These ladies, they are the real ‘she-roes’ of the school lunch program because we all realize that we are here to help the kids and each other – that is our main focus.
“Really, they have all been good moments here,” she continued. “If I had a problem two out of 180 days a year that is just a small blip.”
One reason for her calm presence is her knowledge of her work.
Assistant Superintendent Dr. Nancy Scott praised Nickell for her dedication to children and their nutritional needs in the district’s news release. Under Nickell’s guidance, Sedalia 200’s food service has taken a more proactive role in ensuring families eligible for free and reduced-price meals get enrolled in the program. She also has kept the service close to budget while working within U.S. Department of Agriculture nutritional mandates.
When the district contracted with OPAA for meal services in 2013, Nickell retired from the district to run OPAA’s operation. The district brought food service back under its umbrella in 2017, and Nickell rejoined the district to continue serving its students.
“Rowena has such a big heart for kids and she has always created meals that are good and good for them,” Scott said. “She has been an exemplary leader and we thank her sincerely for her decades of service.”
Another reason for the success of the program is Nickell’s belief in the “golden rule.” She and her staff treat others with respect remembering they are there to provide nutritious meals to the students.
There have been some major changes during Nickell’s 25 years as director of food service. One of the most notable was bringing the food service program back to a self-operated program.
“I still have friends at OPAA – it was a good program it just didn’t work for us,” Nickell commented. “We tried it for five years and during that time we lost money and added employees. It just didn’t work for us.”
Nickell added there were other challenges during her tenure including serving breakfast to all students at the elementary levels, how to transport food to district buildings, and the removal of deep fryers meaning food had to be baked and could no longer be fried as a result of changes in federal guidelines.
Another change that has benefitted students occurred when the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education placed the approval of free and reduced meal applications under the food service program. Prior to that decision each district building was processing the applications.
“That meant we might have as many as 14 hands touching the applications,” Nickell explained. “There are lots of verification pieces involved but since they are centralized we have been able to catch more families who qualify. The numbers of students we serve has gone up but we are helping more families. It needed to be done.”
After helping to prepare more than 30.6 million meals for the students of Sedalia 200, Nickell said she may unplug her alarm clock once she retires and spend time with her husband on their 11-acre hobby farm. Traveling, gardening and reading books are also high on her agenda.
State Rep. Brad Pollitt, R-Sedalia, worked closely with Nickell during his tenure as Sedalia 200 superintendent. He congratulated Nickell on her retirement telling the Democrat via text, “She is a special lady and always put the children first. She taught me a great deal about how to run a first-class food service program.”