Turnquist named as School Lunch Hero

Shelby Turnquist stands with Hancock Public Schools Superintendent Chris Salani, left, and Barkell Elementary School Principal Dan Vaara after receiving Michigan’s School Lunch Hero award. (Photo courtesy of the Hancock Public Schools via Houghton Daily Mining Gazette)

HANCOCK — Like most people, Shelby Turnquist didn’t grow up with a school lunch diet heavy in vegetables. But as she’s found, if kids are exposed to the food — or help grow it — even elementary school children will make a beeline for the salad bar.

“When they’re little is when we’re going to teach them how to eat healthy, so it’s second nature to them,” said Turnquist, food service director for Houghton-Portage Township Schools and Hancock Public Schools. “We started years ago. They hardly didn’t know what broccoli was, or eat any fresh foods or vegetables.”

Turnquist is one of three school food service directors and staff recognized by Michigan this year for School Lunch Hero Day.Turnquist has been a food service director for 29 years, spending three years working at Chassell Public Schools before moving to Houghton-Portage Township Public Schools.

For the past eight years, she has also taken on the food service director role at Hancock Public Schools, serving about 2,100 students in all.

As food service director, she’s responsible for meeting the state and federal nutritional guidelines for a Type A meal. She also puts together the menus and production records, hires and trains staff, and does the food orders.

Educating the students about healthy food is one of her main goals. One way has been her partnerships with local farms. That began during 2020, when the schools began providing curbside pickup for food during COVID. Catching up with a former student who is now a parent, Matt Boersma, she found out he is now a farmer.

He began providing some food for school meals. Other farms followed. This spring, Turnquist is sourcing foods from seven different growers.

“The kids are excited when it’s on the salad bar, and they and their parents grew it,” Turnquist said.

For summer food pickup, in addition to a school meal that meets the requirements, the farmers will pick crops off their field in the morning and bring it to the school that afternoon.

Farmers have also gotten to meet with children and tell them more about the food. When children were passing up one farm’s apples because they were bruised and not the “bright, red, shiny apples” they knew, Turnquist brought the farmer in to tell the children about growing them.

“The next day, the farm apples went before the bright, shiny ones,” Turnquist said.

The programs have helped local farmers get grants for walk-in coolers, hoop houses and other equipment. Like the children, Turnquist has also gotten an education.

“There’s times the farmers bring something in, and we don’t even know what it is,” she said. “We’ve got to ask them (what it is) and how you cook it.”

She’s also started growing vegetables with the students — mostly Houghton so far, though she’s looking to expand to Hancock.

“The kids actually bring the produce down to the salad bar, and they’re telling their friends, ‘We grew this, we grew this,’ and they’re more likely to try it,” she said.

It’s not Turnquist’s first honor from the state. Two years ago, she was honored as Food Service Director of the Year, but couldn’t attend the ceremony. So she wasn’t expecting last week’s award to affect her much.

Instead, she “bawled like a baby.”

“We all do it together,” she said. “It’s not me, it’s all of us. We’re all here to teach the children. I say you’re only as strong as the people that back you, and I’ve got strong people backing me.”

Her favorite part is seeing the excitement on kids’ faces — the way they said “I grew that sprout,” when the first lettuce came up, or the pride of five or six kids bringing it a bucket of greens for the salad bar.

“It’s all of us doing this together, and the excitement just grows,” she said. “The more people we can get on board, the better it is for the children.”


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