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KSDE’s CNW director to retire effective Oct. 27

Compassionate. Passionate. Supportive. Amazing. Exceptional leader. Those are just a few of the words used by colleagues and friends to describe Cheryl Johnson, the Kansas State Department of Education’s (KSDE) Child Nutrition and Wellness (CNW) director.

Johnson is retiring Friday, Oct. 27, after serving Kansas students and food service personnel for more than 30 years. Johnson’s retirement brings forth a variety of emotions for her and those she has worked closely with since she started as a staff development specialist and cadre trainer for KSDE in June 1990.

“Cheryl is the consummate professional and has impacted the health and well-being of all Kansas students through nutrition,” Kansas Commissioner of Education Dr. Randy Watson said. “I wish her the very best in her retirement and thank her for her excellent work.”

As a child growing up on a farm in Valley Falls and being active in 4-H, Johnson had no idea she would end up implementing United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) requirements and meal pattern changes, administering the USDA Child Nutrition Programs and overseeing child nutrition and wellness for the entire state of Kansas.

“I thought I wanted to be an extension agent,” Johnson said with a smile. “But I found out sewing isn’t my forte.”

She attended Kansas State University in Manhattan to study food and nutrition science. Johnson obtained her Bachelor of Science degree in home economics in May 1980. She became a registered dietitian in 1982 and received her master’s degree in dietetics and institutional management from K-State in March 1983.

Johnson married her husband, Kirk, in 1981. The couple lived in Wichita where she worked as a dietitian for St. Joseph’s Hospital, now called Ascension Via Christi St. Joseph.

Kirk Johnson was offered a job in Topeka, and the couple moved back to Topeka to be closer to their families. They have three sons, Kyle, Craig and Mark.

Before joining KSDE, Johnson served as a clinical dietitian for Topeka State Hospital and food service director at Brewster Place in Topeka. From February 1984 to April 1989, Johnson worked at the Kansas Neurological Institute (KNI) as director of dietary. There, she directed the operation of food service for KNI, Topeka State Hospital and the Pre-Release Center and had a staff of more than 100 people. Johnson was responsible for serving more than 1 million meals per year and overseeing a budget of about $2.3 million.

Johnson decided that after having her second son she wanted to change the course of her career.

“I built my own teaching and consulting business,” she said.

Johnson worked closely with several nursing and retirement homes in northeast Kansas, including Midland Hospice, Eventide Convalescent Center and ManorCare in Topeka, as well as facilities in Overbook, Leavenworth and Easton.

Johnson taught at Washburn University as an adjunct professor from August 1989 to May 2010.

When Johnson began working part-time at KSDE, she wrote classes and shared presentations with educators on how they can include nutrition information in their everyday lesson plans. In April 2006, Johnson was named a training coordinator for KSDE’s CNW team. She wrote training materials and provided technical assistance for school food service personnel.

In August 2010, Johnson was named director of the CNW team. But it wasn’t an easy time to take on that role. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 authorized funding for federal school meal and child nutrition programs, and Johnson and her team were charged with overseeing its implementation in Kansas.

The bill reauthorized child nutrition programs for five years and included $4.5 billion in new funding for the programs over 10 years. The act gave USDA the authority to set nutritional standards for all foods regularly sold in schools during the school day, including vending machines, a la carte lunch lines and school stores. It also provided additional funding to schools that met updated nutritional standards for federally subsidized lunches, which was the first real reimbursement rate increase in more than 30 years.

“It was a challenging time,” Johnson recalled. “It was massive. It was a lot of change all at once instead of a gradual change.”

However, Johnson and the CNW team met the challenge head-on and persevered.

“I am always impressed that regardless of the number of mandates and directives, Cheryl maintains a focus on providing nutritious meals to students and doing it as effectively and efficiently as possible,” said Deputy Commissioner Dr. Craig Neuenswander, who supervises Johnson and the CNW team.

David Paul, director of Wichita Unified School District 259’s nutrition services, said he and other school nutrition professionals across Kansas will miss the exceptional leadership provided by Johnson.

“Cheryl took the time to build and develop effective relationships with directors and school nutrition staff members throughout the state,” Paul said. “She had a way of bringing us all together, even though we are mostly miles apart. Cheryl regularly recognized districts and centers for making improvements to their programs. She is a cheerleader and supporter of all child nutrition programs. She has a clear understanding of the challenges we all face day to day and always tries to help. Cheryl is knowledgeable and really smart, compassionate, caring, kind, engaging, reasonable and even fair, and will likely carry those attributes with her throughout her retirement.”

Dr. Kevin Sauer, a professor of dietetics at K-State, crossed paths with Johnson about 20 years ago, he said. It has been a relationship that has involved many effective collaborations and positive outcomes.

“When I think of a passionate leader, I think of Cheryl,” Sauer said. “Cheryl has worked tirelessly to position school food service and nutrition at the core of effective education for children in the state of Kansas and nationally.”

Barb Depew, Farm to Plate project director for KSDE’s CNW team, worked with Johnson 20 years ago as a cadre trainer and as a CNW team member under her leadership for the past 15 years.

“Cheryl is the type of leader you want to be around in the hope that some of her ‘style’ will rub off on you – professional, organized, compassionate, respectful and fun,” Depew said. “She has left a legacy of positive impacts on Kansas child nutrition programs. I know her cinnamon rolls will be missed also!”

Kelly Chanay is one of two assistant directors on the CNW team and has enjoyed working with Johnson.

“Not only has Cheryl worked tirelessly and passionately to increase access to child nutrition programs in the state of Kansas, but Cheryl has also been a tireless and passionate advocate for the profession of dietetics,” Chanay said. “Throughout her career, she has mentored not only child nutrition staff but aspiring dietitians, including those with degrees from schools not of purple and white. I am so honored and thankful to have had the opportunity to work with Cheryl. She has been an amazing mentor to me and her positivity, support and guidance for myself and the CNW team is remarkable. Cheryl recently shared a quote with the CNW team: A person always doing his or her best becomes a natural leader just by example. I think that quote fits Cheryl to a T.”

Johnson has seen a lot of changes during her years at KSDE, and she led the charge to ensure thousands of Kansas students were fed while school buildings were closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. But Johnson is humble and quickly steers the accolades to her team members and Kansas school food workers.

“The team did an amazing job helping sponsors across Kansas,” she said. “We were a team with our sponsors throughout the state. We are a nutrition safety net. We are teaching healthy habits for a lifetime, creating healthier environments and putting a focus on health when they (students) are younger. That’s where we can really make a difference.”

While Johnson is known for her professionalism and takes her job seriously, she did get a little emotional when asked what she was going to miss most about her time at KSDE.

“Definitely the people,” she whispered softly, wiping away tears.

It is difficult for Johnson to brag about her accomplishments during her KSDE career.

“It’s not about me,” she said. “It’s the team.”

However, she does think there has been progress made under her leadership, including:

  • Expanding the use of local products in school lunches.
  • Getting approved for federal grants, which has allowed her team to offer more training and learning opportunities.
  • Lowering the number of public schools in Kansas with breakfast waivers to zero.
  • Having the state approved to participate in the Direct Certification with Medicaid Demonstration Projects.
  • Improving collaboration with USDA, sponsors and other states.
  • Increasing the number of Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) sponsors from 91 in 2011 to 345 in 2021.
  • Reducing the stigma that often goes along with being a food service provider.

USDA’s Food and Nutrition Services (FNS) recognized Johnson’s remarkable career, too.

“From the moment you began as the KSDE state agency director, you dedicated countless hours to improving processes, communication and professionalism for the benefit of all those you and your staff served in the state of Kansas,” USDA-FNS wrote in a letter.

Johnson is known for being a problem-solver for child nutrition programs by expressing ideas for potential solutions, thereby reducing program barriers and increasing program success, USD-FNS said.

“You have established yourself as a champion for helping to combat hunger in Kansas, as an advocate for well-nourished Kansas children, and as an advocate for the local level sponsors in Kansas who successfully operate the FNS programs,” Cheryl Kennedy regional administrator for USDA-FNS wrote. “From all of the staff at USDA-FNS in the Mountain Plains Region, we extend a sincere thank you for your dedication and contributions through the years.”

Despite the list of accomplishments, Johnson’s “real reason” for spending a large portion of her career at KSDE is fairly obvious.

“We have a passion for feeding kids and being that nutrition safety net,” she said. “This has been my favorite job. I think we’ve made a positive difference in the lives of children. My advice for the new director? I don’t think you can be a good leader if you’re not part of the team. We have a wonderful team. Rely on your team. And keep in mind the real reason we do this – Kansas kids. You really need to focus on what is best for Kansas kids.”

Johnson’s office, once chock full of K-State items, cookbooks, family photographs and other mementos from her time at KSDE, is nearly empty. Yes, she is going to miss the people. But she is looking forward to a future filled with volunteering as she delivers Meals on Wheels, spending time with her sons and husband, and being grandma to her five grandchildren, ages 5, 4, 3, 2 and 1.

Food service directors and KSDE staff members will miss Johnson and her dedication to feeding Kansas children.

Wichita USD 259’s Paul may have said it best: “Most importantly, Cheryl always put the needs of children first and foremost. Best wishes in your retirement, Mrs. Johnson.”

Posted: Oct 19, 2023,
Comments: 0,
Author: Ann Bush
Tags: CNW

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