Shannon Ebron is not just a St. Louis native, registered dietician, and remarkable professional who made a career move in the midst of perhaps the most vulnerable moment of our century. She is also a hero paving the way for how kids, especially Black youth, are nurtured through food in schools, during a global pandemic, national racial justice movement, and beyond. No wonder she earned a Hero Spotlight from the Chef Ann Foundation and Danone North America.
Earlier this year, Ebron transitioned from her role as assistant director of Food & Nutrition Services with the Fox C6 School District in Arnold to serve as director of Child Nutrition with Riverview Gardens School District in North County.
Starting this new role in the middle of the pandemic has been challenging to say the least. As the director of Child Nutrition for the entire district, she already has a lot on her plate. Her responsibilities range from planning menus, ordering food, coordinating distribution between school sites, hiring, and overseeing the district’s finances. With COVID-19, however, nothing has been routine. On top of her traditional responsibilities, she has also found herself jumping in to prepare meals when school sites are short-staffed, onboarding new managers, and paying invoices.
As a dietetics student early on in her career, it never occurred to Shannon that school nutrition is where she would end up. While studying for her degree, she had to complete a practicum requirement and was randomly placed in a school district, not knowing what to expect. After getting hands-on experience in a little bit of everything, she knew it was the path for her. “School food service is a little bit of everything I’ve ever loved,” she said. “I found that I really enjoyed it and never looked back.”
Despite the difficulties public school districts face in this moment, she saw the opportunity to transition into this new role as a way to give back to the community, make a positive impact in the Riverview Gardens School District and give Black students the opportunity to see role models in their schools that look like them.
To get a sense of the comparative economics of the two districts, Fox C6 has an assessed tax valuation of nearly $1 billion and 11,333 students, while Riverview has an assessed tax valuation of less than $190.5 million for 5,656 students; that’s five times the wealth in Fox C6 yet only twice the number of students.
Considered a food desert, Riverview Gardens qualifies for the Community Eligibility Program (CEP) which is a non-pricing meal service option for schools and school districts in low-income areas. This means that schools are able to provide one free breakfast and lunch to students during the week. Ebron saw even more avenues to decrease food insecurity with additional programs like the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program which provides students with two snacks, one piece of fresh fruit and veggies to their nutrition plan. There are other programs she wants to implement as well, like adding a fresh salad bar to cafeteria dining, hopefully once the pandemic is over.
In the meantime, Ebron has found appreciation in learning new things that she might have not come across if it weren’t for the pandemic, like understanding bus routes, since the district relies on this method to deliver meals to students.
Shannon plans all the menus in accordance with the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act implemented by the USDA in 2010. Keeping in line with these federal guidelines, meals are planned by age group and vary in serving size, caloric intake, and fruit and vegetable subgroups. With the impact of COVID-19, currently all meals are being delivered frozen by bus in order to prioritize food safety, but once things are back on track with in-person learning, Shannon looks forward to experimenting with recipes cooked fresh in the kitchen. For now, she is happy to say that “children are getting meals no matter what.”
In an interview with the Chef Ann Foundation, Shannon shared a sweet, yet powerful story that speaks to the impact she’s making in schools and the difference healthy eating can make in a child’s life.
While working in a previous position at Ritenour School District in Overland, she received a Chef Ann Project Produce Grant and was able to conduct taste tests with students, making a point to utilize local ingredients. One day, she made a broccoli apple salad and a young man, maybe in the 4th or 5th grade she recounted, came up and decided to try it. The salad was an instant hit and he returned seven more times for additional servings. She described it as yet another moment that had her hooked.
“I just knew I was making a difference in a student’s health, their life, and what they were going to be able to take with them nutrition-wise,” she said.
To encourage more healthy eating in students, Shannon is also excited about keeping them and their families engaged with their meals through social media, a strategy she developed in previous roles since social media is so ingrained in our modern culture and serves as one of our primary modes of communication. It can be greatly rewarding to see its impact pay off, like in another anecdote she shared of a time when she posted a photo and a parent later commented with surprise that her daughter “asked for a gala apple yesterday.” According to Ebron, it can be a great way to bring classroom education into the home.
In line with this mission, Shannon really believes that food justice starts at school. “It is one of the first opportunities students have to learn about where food comes from,” she said, “what it means to live in a food desert like Riverview Gardens, and see the challenges faced by these communities.”
When asked what it’s like being a Black woman working in nutrition, she said that the journey can often be lonely. For context, she stated that only about 3% of registered dieticians are African American. In that same interview with Chef Ann, she mentioned that although this moment of racial justice hasn’t entirely changed the nature of her work, it has opened up conversations with non-professional colleagues about what this experience is like. Through her own actions she has made an effort to introduce young Black people to her work by actively engaging with them and introducing them to other Black professionals in the field. She wants folks to know that the opportunities are available.
If anyone in the North County area would like to partner or collaborate with Shannon and her team, please reach out to her at email@example.com.