Team work. That’s what it’s all about for Gail Johnson, food service director for the Little Falls School Director.
Johnson oversees five school kitchens in the Little Falls School District — at the Little Falls Community High School, the Little Falls Community Middle School, Lincoln Elementary School, Mid-State Education District in Little Falls and Dr. S.G. Knight Elementary School in Randall.
But even so, it is a team effort with about 30 cooks throughout the district that makes the food service in the school district what it is.
That is why she wishes the recognition of October “Employee of the Month” she received from the Little Falls Area Chamber of Commerce also included the rest of the team.
“I was honored to read what the nominations said, but at the same time, I wish it could have been a group thing,” she said. “But I do want to thank all of my co-workers for their kind words and the Chamber of Commerce for selecting me as the October Employee of the Month.”
One of those who nominated her was Supt. Stephen Jones, who praised her for her efforts to continuously improve the district’s food service.
“Gail Johnson is a rock star,” he said.
During the 10 years Johnson has worked in the Little Falls School District, she has added a two-acre garden and a 30-by-48-foot high tunnel at the Little Falls Community Schools.
She has also implemented salad bars at all five schools, a second chance breakfast across the district, smoothies in the morning and special days in food service for students throughout the years.
Johnson introduced the Flyer Pride Weekend Food Backpack program where students who are food insecure can bring food home over the weekend and spiced up the menu options for the students by inviting chefs to make something different.
“Gail has willingly accepted and implemented all of these changes with a smile and a passion, because each of these changes is what’s best for the kids,” he said.
Jones said Johnson “epitomizes what the food service industry is all about — serving others, while introducing new concepts and foods into the district’s food service operation.”
“Gail seeks opportunities to impact the children through food and fully understands that for many students, breakfast and lunch at school are vitally important to them. She leads her staff with both her head and her heart,” he said.
Before Johnson took on the position as food service director, she and her husband, Dan, owned and operated a supper club in Pequot Lakes. After they sold it, she was involved in the “Meals on Wheels” program for several years.
Johnson said what ultimately led her into the restaurant business was a waitress position at a restaurant, where she was later promoted to manager. She had left a career of working in geriatric care. Eventually caring for those in hospice became too heartbreaking, she said.
“You either separate it or you carry it home. I carried it,” she said.
When it comes to working as a food service director, the best part is the interaction with the staff and the students and what they accomplish together.
Although schools are mandated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to serve certain foods, Johnson said she makes the best of the special menu days the USDA allows schools to have.
One way to introduce them to different foods is by having locals chefs decide what to make. She recalls the day they had mango chicken. It was a hit among students.
Another special meal the students liked was a salmon, wild rice and fresh vegetables pouch, the chef made.
“At first I wasn’t sure of the students would like it, but they loved it. It’s all in how it is prepared,” she said.
That day, the students were also treated to a three-tier layered lemon cake.
“They really enjoyed it,” she said.
Students’ input is important to Johnson. Last year, she had a group of students talk with other students to learn more about their likes and dislikes.
At Dr. S.G. Knight Elementary School in Randall, students can request a special menu day. That day is then named after the student’s first name, she said.
“They may have a Bradley day,” she said.
When she is not working, she enjoys spending time with Dan and their children, Will, Kate, Drew and Molly.
It’s also a special treat to spend time with their seven grandchildren, Bailee, Lydia, Ava, Korvin, Trey, Maverick and Lillie.
As Employee of the Month, Johnson will receive gift certificates from Bursch Travel Agency, CHI Health at Home, Design Electronics, Domino’s, Franciscan Sisters of Little Falls, Fresh Hair Professionals, GoldSmith Jewelers, Johnny C’s Sports Bar, Linden Hill Historic Event Center, Pizza Ranch, Subway - Little Falls and Vacuum Cleaner Outlet and Service Center.
She will also have a professional photo taken by Maddie B’s Photography.