Rooted In Mills County - Glenwood Graduate Finds Her Calling As Director Of Nutrition For Council Bluffs Community School District

Lisa Stewart is the Director Of Nutrition for the Council Bluffs Community School District.

Lisa Stewart with some of the food service workers at Abraham Lincoln High School. Front row (from left): Sarah McCormick, Jody Martin, Pamela Emerine, Kristine Jeffrey. Back row: Marcia May, Stewart and Robin Colter.

Glenwood Community High School student Lisa (Lothrop) Stewart with her FCCLA advisor Janis Moore.

Lisa (Lothrop) Stewart on high school graduation day in 2003.

Lisa Stewart and her husband Matt with their three children - Aubrey (12), McKenna (9) and Rhett (5).

Overseeing the nutrition program for a public school district with 8,880 students is an enormous responsibility that’s been both challenging and gratifying for Lisa (Lothrop) Stewart, a graduate of Glenwood Community High School.

Stewart, a Registered Dietitian and School Nutrition Specialist, is Director Of Nutrition for the Council Bluffs Community School District, a position she’s held since 2017.

“I was at the right place at the right time with the right skills,” Stewart said. “I really loved it when I started here and I still do. I don’t ever see myself leaving.”

After graduating from Glenwood in 2003, Stewart attended the University Of Nebraska where she earned dual degrees in dietetics and exercise / health science.

After earning her degrees, Stewart had aspirations of becoming a Registered Dietitian but knew it would require more schooling and doing a mandatory internship, something she wasn’t interested in doing at the time. Her first job out of college was in retail, where she starting building a foundation in management, but after two years decided it was time to find a job in nutrition.

“I found a part-time job in Council Bluffs being a nutrition educator, working for this department 20 hours week. I was hired in October 2010,” Stewart recalled. “I found that I really liked it and I really like this school district. It was part-time, but I really needed full-time. I started kind of at the ground level and worked my way up. Every year, I had a different job and a different amount of hours I was working.”

The school district’s Director Of Nutrition at that time, Virginia Bechtold, saw something special in Stewart and encouraged her to complete the work needed to become a Registered Dietitian. It would require Stewart to complete an internship program and pass a licensure exam.

“She was like, ‘I think you really need to consider this,’” Stewart said. “I was married and I was pregnant. I thought, ‘This is not a good time,’ but I didn’t have a choice. If you wanted to be a Registered Dietitian, you had to do an internship and you had to do it within five years of graduating with an undergrad degree."

The clock was ticking for Stewart, who was now four years removed from getting her undergraduate degrees, so she pursued a spot with Iowa State University’s “distance internship program,” which would allow her to set up her own internship program. She was accepted and did unpaid clinical work at the Veterans Administration in Omaha and rotations at Children’s Hospital and Methodist Women’s Hospital. She also got prior accessed learning credit for some of the work she had done with the school district in Council Bluffs.

The internship was completed in six months and Stewart passed the written exam. She was now a Registered Dietitian.

“It just takes somebody seeing something in you to then realize that’s what you probably should have been doing the whole time,” Stewart said.

“It didn’t take long for Stewart to land a full-time job – with the Council Bluffs Community School District.

“At that time, I was hired here full-time, not as the district’s dietitian, but there was a full-time position within the department,” she said. ‘I took it just hoping that someday it would turn into something. I really thought I would be the consulting dietitian for the district, working on special diets and menus and working with the other dietician.”

Just a few years later, Bechtold retired and Stewart became the director. The guidance and mentoring Stewart received working with Bechtold was invaluable.

“I always thought she was an excellent teacher. She could be very black and white, but I learned probably more in the years prior to me becoming the director, specifically about school nutrition, than I ever did in college or when I did my internship program,” Stewart said.

Kitchens and Staffing

In her position with the Council Bluffs Community School District, Stewart is responsible for overseeing the nutrition department and school district warehouse. The district has 15 traditional school buildings, an early learning center and alternative learning school in addition to providing meals for two learning campuses in Council Bluffs. She oversees all of the kitchens and a staff of over 100 employees. Stewart’s office in the district’s food and supply warehouse.

“Every (school) building has its own kitchen but not all of the kitchens have the same equipment,’ she said. “We have three production kitchens, where certain foods, like mashed potatoes  are cooked and shipped to all of the locations. It is easier to make mashed potatoes at three locations in mass quantities for thousands of kids than it is for each location to make their own. It’s a method that’s been here for a long time and it’s very effective.”

“I oversee all of those kitchens – a staff of 104 in all kitchens,” she said. “I don’t work in a kitchen directly very often – I can’t say I’m the one personally feeding kids, but ultimately we know that when kids go home on Friday, they’ve had access to nutritious food, have had healthy meals when they were at school for five days and we’ll still be here on Monday when they come back.”

One of the nutrition department’s primary responsibilities is menu planning. Stewart noted that USDA  child nutrition programs are heavily regulated with guidelines for everything from whole grains and sodium to fats and calories. Menus have to meet weekly requirements.

“It’s no longer just you having to serve a vegetable and a fruit,” she pointed out. “It depends what color the vegetables are and what nutrition you’re getting from those vegetables.

“If you were a parent looking at a menu with no background knowledge, they would think we offer carrots a lot. It’s because a red/orange subgroup of vegetables has to be offered three times a week and the most acceptable red/orange vegetable that kids are going to eat are baby carrots.”

Fresh Produce A Priority

Stewart said her staff does a very good job of offering food options that not only meet federal guidelines but is  enjoyed by students.

Serving local food and fresh produce is a priority for the district’s nutrition department. Whenever possible, produce is purchased from Council Bluffs area and southwest Iowa food producers.

“We have fresh produce at all of our buildings every day,” Stewart said. “I would love to not have canned vegetables because outside of maybe corn and baked beans, they (students) eat fresh better.

“We put maps up with farm names and kids get to see where the food is coming from. That’s a concept that’s lost, even being in Iowa. You think kids know where there food is coming from, but it’s kind of eye-opening when you realize they don’t.”

The schools in Council Bluffs are all on a six-week rotation of menus with wiggle room built in for “fun event” days. This week, for example, an Asian-themed menu will be offered in observance of Chinese New Year. There are also seasonal offerings, such as chili and cinnamon rolls during the winter months.

Free Breakfast and Lunch

The Council Bluffs Community School District is among a handful in Iowa that offer free breakfast and free lunch to all students. The district is able to provide the free meals to all students because it meets the criteria for the Free and Reduced Lunch program’s Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) that’s available in low-income communities that have a high percentage of students from households that receive state benefits such as food assistance or Medicaid.

The CEP program became available in all Council Bluffs public schools in 2017. Stewart said the program has been successful and well supported by staff and the board of education.

“When it’s free for everyone, it takes the stigma off,” she said. “I think back to when I was in school, you had different colored lunch cards. We don’t turn meals away from anybody. We’ve never done that here. We’ve never turned kids away because they don’t have money because ultimately it’s not their fault.”

Stewart said until she came to work for the school district, she had no idea how many children were coming to the classroom hungry.

“I never knew what hunger was until I was a nutrition educator,” she said. “I was teaching a lesson on raw cauliflower and broccoli and I had kids come up and ask if they could take some home in a napkin in their pocket to give to siblings. That is hunger.

“That was my first eye-opening moment that this is so much more than just teaching kids about how things grow and good nutrition. We’ve got to get food into these kids’ bellies so that they can be successful.”

”COVID-19 Response

Stewart said because the CEP program was already in place, Council Bluffs had a leg up on other districts when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020.

“When the nation went to free breakfast and free lunch for the pandemic, we knew how to operate because we were already doing it.”

Looking back, Stewart still takes great pride in her team’s response to the pandemic.

“I had an incredible team,” she said. “They showed up and put themselves at risk. We did everything we could to mitigate spread and the community was so supportive. We had volunteers making masks early on because we couldn’t’ buy them. We had people in the community who volunteered to take lunches to vehicles so school staff would have less risk of being exposed. It was just incredible.”
Public health and school policies and guidelines were changing constantly during the pandemic, but the nutrition services staff just rolled with the punches and maintained their commitment to feeding the children of the district.

Growing Up In Glenwood

As a student going through the Glenwood Community School District, Stewart was involved in several activities, ranging from 4-H to speech and FCCLA. Many of the experiences she had because of her involvement with those organizations have been beneficial in her career.

“I had that foundation growing up in Glenwood,” she said. “Doing a lot of those activities led me to be able to serve on a lot of committees and boards throughout the state. And, working with staff, speaking to 100 people can be intimidating.”

Stewart said she was fortunate to have such powerful teachers and mentors in Glenwood, including FCCLA advisor Janis Moore, speech coach Marianne Driml and teacher Mike Schmidt.

“I took college classes with Mr. Schmidt in high school through Iowa Western and I never had to take any more in undergrad because of everything I was able to accoomplish at Glenwood,” she said “The skills I learned in his classes alone have carried me to this day.  I still think about things he would say. I don’t remember a lot from high school – it was 20 years ago – but I remember some of his messages.”

The guidance and mentorship Stewart received as a student in Glenwood had a positive impact on her life. Now, in a slightly different way, she’s paying it forward by doing her part to ensure the children she serves can be successful, too.

“I remind my staff, there’s no other position in the building that you’re guaranteed or have the option of seeing every kid every day,” she said. “The physical education teacher doesn’t teach every kid every day, but we are there to offer breakfast and lunch to every kid, every day and that’s pretty remarkable. You have a huge impact.

“We want all of our children to be successful. Our district has high expectations and high goals and we’re a big part of that.”


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