New Hanover County Schools




School Nutrition Manager of the Year

Mrs. Fullard, ECU Pirate Leadership Academy Fellowship

Carol Kennedy has a sign on her desk in the cafeteria office at Sunset Park Elementary School that reads, in all caps, GIRL BOSS.

It’s loud and purple and iridescent.

A coworker gave it to her as a joke, which it obviously is, because it’s very un-Carol.

Carol is the one singing quietly to herself about different varieties of cheese as she sprinkles them on today’s school lunch of beef-a-roni — “and the yellow one… and the white one…” — before shaking a special seasoning blend like she’s cooking for her own family.

Carol is the one who spies a child coming through the lunch line who doesn’t eat meat and retrieves the single slice of cheese pizza she made especially for her.

Carol is the one pitching in in every possible way — scrubbing pans, scooping lima beans, mopping up — elbow-to-elbow with her team, indistinguishable from them with her long hair under a hairnet.

She might be the boss, but when pressed to describe her job she said, “To let the kids know that they're loved and that they’re going to be fed a good, nutritious meal,” adding quietly, “I’m just trying to make a difference in the lives of everyone I come across.”

Now in her 21st year in Child Nutrition in New Hanover County Schools, Kennedy learned last month that she is the School Nutrition Association Manager of the Year for the state of North Carolina.

“I’m a behind-the-scenes person,” she said, so the recognition made her a little uneasy. “I thought to myself, maybe God’s got some purpose to get you out of your shell.”

For Kennedy it’s been a tough few years. First a family tragedy leveled her, followed quickly by a breast cancer diagnosis and its harrowing treatment.

But now in remission and back at school, she is bolstered by the students she serves and the coworkers she describes as family.

As nearly 400 kids file through her line for breakfast and lunch every day — sometimes loud, sometimes fidgety, sometimes spilling — Kennedy is steady, patient, warm.

“This needs to be their safe space,” she said. “You never know what someone is going through. Even when you’ve got your own stuff, you still show love. People just want to be accepted for who they are.”

Back in the lunch line, Kennedy works to persuade a third grader to try a spoonful of beans: “I tell ya, lima beans and beef-a-roni really go well together,” she says, adding in a conspiratorial whisper, “with a little bit of hot sauce.”

She asks some other students to tell her in the morning how they liked the beef-a-roni: “I used a different kind of noodle… let me know what you think.”

And tomorrow, the symphony of cooking and serving and connecting will begin again.

“All right my darlings,” she waves to the end of the line. “I will see y’all in the morning.”