Manager Cheryl Neyens using grants to improve students’ nutrition

School board members Mike Frank, Nathan Matejka and Tammie Nunn were busy in the elementary school kitchen Tuesday, March 5, as celebrity servers during breakfast.

By Robert Williams


Established in 1989, National School Breakfast Week (March 4-8) is a commitment to the success of students and recognizing the profound impact of a healthy breakfast on academic achievement. 

High School Food Service Staff: Troy Teiden, Dawn Money, Leanne Montgomery, Rock Brown and Food Service Manager Cheryl Neyens.

Frazee-Vergas Schools Food Service Manager Cheryl Neyens organized last week with celebrity servers in the elementary school kitchen from school board members to student council representatives, members of the Native American Club and Interact, along with the Hornet mascot to help teach young students about the importance of healthy choices available with school breakfast.

This year’s campaign theme was “Surfs Up with School Breakfast,” a reminder to the school community that school breakfast provides a healthy and energizing start to the day for students.

Studies show students who eat school breakfast: reach higher levels of achievement in reading and math; score higher on standardized tests; have better concentration and memory; are more alert and maintain a healthy weight.

Neyens began working in the high school kitchen as a substitute in 1998, which she did for five years before taking a full-time position and has been the manager for the past eight years. 

The biggest change Neyens has seen in her two decades is the quality of food served.

She has been at the head of the program during the transition from the old food models to a more nutrition-based system.

“Right when I was starting in this position was when all the new regulations came in under Obama,” said Neyens. “They started pushing more fruits and veggies and you had to convince kids they did like it.”

An example went into effect in 2014, any food or beverage sold to students outside of Child Nutrition Programs on school campus during the school day must meet federal Smart Snacks nutrition guidelines when applied to a la carte sales, vending machines, school stores, snack carts and fundraisers.

“It’s gotten better every year,” said Neyens.

Neyens also has a keen eye on what works and what doesn’t and uses that to plan out her monthly menus.

“The menus I put together are more of the stuff that the kids like,” she said. 

Another recent change was Governor Walz signing the Free School Meals bill into law prior to this school year. 

“I’ve noticed a few more kids eating that used to always bring their lunch so they’re eating with us now because they have the option of the free meal,” Neyens said. 

Not all of Food Service work happens in the kitchen and Neyens has found success in applying for grants to benefit the school food program.

In 2023, the district received the Minnesota Department of Education Team Nutrition grant up to $2,500 for the first time.

The grant allowed for $600 of needed equipment to be purchased.

There are three specific program expectations with the grant, one involved hosting at least one family engagement night, which Neyens held during parent-teacher conferences on Tuesday, Feb. 27. The purchase of supplies and equipment is the second expectation, along with hosting University of Minnesota SNAP-Ed educators to provide nutrition education lessons.

“It’s Go Wild with Fruits and Veggies, that’s kind of the theme of that,” said Neyens.

Go Wild with Fruits and Veggies is designed to involve students in active learning. Students learn from lessons organized by fruit and vegetable colors, with animal characters in each lesson to make learning more enjoyable and educate students about area wildlife. Lessons include games, music, brain breaks or energizers, tasting opportunities, and other activities to stimulate all five senses and keep students engaged throughout the whole lesson. 

Goals of the lessons, conducted by SNAP-Ed Health and Wellness Coordinator Marilyn Hofland, are to increase amounts and varieties of fruits and vegetables eaten at school, and at home with families. Students also participate in physical activities, while learning about the importance of daily exercise as a part of good health.

In 2023, Neyens was credited with the Farm to School First Bite Grant.

“I got $7,000 and was able to buy fresh, local grown products,” Neyens said. “I’m still trying to find locally grown products but I’ve used that grant up.”

The grant was used to purchase apples locally and fresh turkeys, among other products that were available. For next year, Neyens was successfully awarded the Farm to School Full Tray Grant of $5,000.

“This year was kind of my learning year on it, so next year we have a $5,000 match grant and I’ve already got distributors lined up,” said Neyens.

Frazee-Vergas second graders got an opportunity to meet local producers on Leap Day when they visited the Anderson’s Farm to learn about Maple Syrup production and Neyens will receive maple syrup and possibly some ground beef from the farm to use at the school.

In some ways, the program is limited by the short growing season in Minnesota, but there is some produce available in the fall.

“By the time school starts, I’m able to get watermelon, cantaloupe, a few tomatoes, but green beans and all that is pretty well done,” said Neyens. 

The grant helps offset the extra costs of purchasing local, organic foods and the options are growing with more local growers finding out about the grant program.

While funds are not excessively available, Neyens is utilizing all the money she gets for the program and turning it around into serving nutritious meals.

Annually, every school gets money from the federal government based on how many meals are served and Neyens uses that money to put toward commodities for the coming school year. The state of Minnesota makes fruits, vegetables, bulk cheese and some meats available for purchase.

“I put a big chunk of my money into that,” said Neyens.

Two decades of working with the school’s food program has brought a lot of change and those behind the scenes in the kitchens are not always credited for the work they do. Neyens, however, has had moments that helped her realize she is more popular than she knows, especially down at the elementary school.

“I have one boy; I don’t even know his name but everytime he sees me he grabs my leg and says, ‘When are we having Mac n’ Cheese?’” Neyens laughed. “I don’t know how he even recognizes me because I don’t get down there as much as I’d like.”

The food program will be holding another event for students and parents “Donuts with Grownups” in April. The exact date will be announced later in the school year.