Meriden School Cafeteria Manager Honored as Regional Manager of the Year

MERIDEN – The cafeteria at Thomas Hooker Elementary School was buzzing Friday afternoon, as students walked through the lunch queue, grabbed trays full of food, juice packets and milk cartons and took place at long tables.

On the menu that day: chicken sandwiches and cheese mozzarella breadsticks, with salad and fruit.

A sign hanging from the ceiling bears the official title of the cafeteria: Hungry Husky Cafe. The name is accompanied by an illustration of the school’s Husky mascot wearing a puffy chef’s hat and holding a fork.

Deb Timek is the cafeteria’s longtime manager. Earlier this week, the nonprofit National School Nutrition Association named Timek as its Northeast Regional Director of the Year.

“The award recognizes the dedication, resourcefulness and compassion shown by SNA members who excel in nurturing students,” the organization said.

“It motivates me to see the kids enjoying a great healthy meal in our cafeteria every day,” said Timek, who added that she was touched by the recognition.

Serving meals daily is everyone on deck at Thomas Hooker. Timek, as the cafeteria manager, has a small office located near a stainless steel sink in a small kitchen space that poses some challenges.

But you won’t find Timek sitting behind that desk during meals. She will be elsewhere in the cafeteria, for example behind the cash register or the counter, serving the students with a smile alongside two other colleagues. Between meals, staff members quickly wipe down tables and stools and prepare for the next wave. They serve meals to some 300 students every day.

Timek, a Meriden resident, started working at Thomas Hooker 22 years ago. Midway through her term, she became cafeteria manager.

Timek described the opportunity to work at the school, which offered a flexible schedule that allowed her to spend time with her own children, like the one she stumbled upon. Soon the Husky Cafe became a second home.

“I love this school,” Timek said, explaining that she’s had the opportunity to go to other schools. But she always wanted to stay with Thomas Hooker.

“I love the kids. I love watching them grow,” Timek said. “It’s so much fun watching them grow from kindergarten through fifth grade. We see every kid in this school in the cafeteria.

Timek said learning that she was nominated for the SNA award and named as the recipient came as a “complete surprise.”

As it happens, Friday, when the Record-Journal visited, was also school lunch day. The SNA had established it as a day to recognize school food service workers. Earlier in the week, the Board of Education also recognized the collective efforts of these employees across the district.

Susan Maffe, director of food and nutrition services at Meriden Public School, addressed the board at its Tuesday meeting. During this address, Maffe presented data relating to the 2020-2021 school year.

Throughout this school year, when students attended school in person or remotely, school district staff served a total of 871,828 breakfasts and 973,407 lunches. Last summer, the district served 337,000 additional breakfasts and lunches in those months alone.

The district has managed to feed students for the past two years, despite high staff turnover — 31%, Maffe said. The ministry has faced other challenges including staff illnesses and supply chain issues over the past two years.

“Our 13 cafeterias and our staff remain resilient. Our team is stronger and more flexible than ever,” Maffe told the board.

School Board Chairman Rob Kosienski Jr. and Meriden Public Schools Superintendent Mark D. Benigni thanked cafeteria workers.

“I think anyone who’s seen what we do knows it’s done so well because of you,” Kosienski told the staff members in attendance. “1.9 million resources over the 2020-2021 period. It’s incredible. Give yourself a round of applause. We know it’s not easy… Your hard work, dedication, attention is greatly appreciated.

Benigni also said he can’t thank the district’s catering staff enough.

“Our food service is second to none,” he said, adding that staff members have maintained a positive attitude throughout the pandemic.

Maffe had nominated Timek for the national award. Separately, the School Nutrition Association of Connecticut named another district cafeteria manager, Janet Crosetti-Jackson of John Barry Elementary School, as its rising star of the year. This recognition is granted to people who have worked 10 years or less in their respective positions.

At Thomas Hooker, school principal Gail Kelly had her own accolades for Timek.

“You take pride in your work. But you also make it fun,” Kelly told Timek. Kelly described Timek as humble, friendly and dedicated.

“She is there for the children. I’m very proud,” Kelly said. “We are lucky to have him.”

Timek had similar praise for Thomas Hooker’s staff. “We have a great team,” she said. “Our manager is very supportive in everything we do.”

Timek said there are many days when the job of feeding students is very hectic.

“But it’s rewarding for sure,” she said.

[email protected]:@MikeGagneRJ

About Walter Bartholomew

Check Also

Sesame Cafe makes food-themed cat toys for pet owners

Longtime friends and Evanston residents Theresa Robinson and Skye O’Connor adopted two rescue cats at …