Nutrition staff embraces differences to create community environment

Shravani Page | Staff Writer

 In a world where differences are known to cause divides, the Mason High School Nutrition Staff uses their differences to unify.

Mason’s nutrition staff is a group of individuals Mason students see and interact with everyday. Whether it’s greeting students with a simple “hi” or helping them with their lunch needs, the staff strives to make a positive difference. Outside of school, the staff is a close and tight-knit community — even with differences in beliefs, culture, and politics. 

Mason High School’s Nutrition Manager Sarah Burkhart has been involved in Mason nutrition for nearly eight years. Before her position here at Mason, she used to be a part of the nutrition staff at Little Miami high school. Burkhart said Little Miami wasn’t “as diverse as Mason.” When she first joined Mason’s staff, she said she found it encouraging to “walk into the kitchen and see so many different faces.” 

1999 Mason Graduate and “lifelong learner” Jen Moorhead has seen Mason grow from what used to be a “small, farm community” to a community of diversity and opportunity. Moorhead was amazed as she came to work back into the Mason community three years ago. From seeing all the new faces to the flags lined up in the cafeteria, Moorhead was “impressed with such a welcoming and positive environment.”

“The high school wasn’t very big when I graduated and we didn’t have a lot of diversity,” Moorhead said. “ I’ve worked other jobs before and this community was very inviting. Mason has changed dramatically from what I’ve seen and it’s grown very large. I see all the difference as really positive changes for Mason.”

The nutritional staff shares many differences, from generational gaps to varying native languages to even taste in music. Sometimes there can be a communication barrier, especially for those whose first language is not English. Burkhart shared that it’s always “important to be mindful in how we communicate with our staff” so everyone can understand each other. 

“There have been a couple times where I’ve asked a fellow staff memeber how to say something in an easier way,” Burkhart said. “There have been several phrases that we’ve discussed in different languages so I encourage the different use of language on the staff.”

Even outside of language, the staff encourages open discussion on their differences. In a sense, the staff chooses to “embrace and celebrate” them. The staff uses this idea of embracing and acknowledging their differences when they choose to talk about politics or current events. On a lighter note, the staff also uses this idea on their music playlists. Burkhart’s playlist consists of music from all cultures as it “exposes the staff to something they’re not used to,” and can even lead to some “kitchen dance parties.”

“Learning about different cultures is so interesting to me,” Moorhead said. “I remember one of the ladies was showing me this picture of a sari the other day. She was showing me pictures from a wedding and I was just so fascinated by how beautiful it was. I love to take everything in and it helps me learn a lot.”

Shahnaz Rippa has been working in Mason’s nutritional staff for the past 14 years. Rippa moved to Mason from Bangladesh with kids who are now one of Mason’s alumni. Her initial experience with Mason was very “positive and welcoming” as she has seen Mason grow into an “accepting family-like” community with cultural events such as the Taste of Mason. 

“Coming onto the new staff never felt like a major challenge,” Rippa said. “I felt more welcomed and the other ladies were really accepting. I noticed their willingness and positive attitude right away. From the day I first came here, they treated me as one of their own.”

Through a welcoming community, Rippa has been able to form “lasting and meaningful” bonds with her fellow staff members — bonds that last even outside the kitchen. Prior to COVID, the staff would engage in “potlucks and exchanges” where they would exchange foods and native dishes. Rippa mentions “exchanging cultural gifts every year” during their annual Christmas get-togethers.

“We are a family,” Rippa said. “I feel so happy when I enter the kitchen and I love coming here. Everybody’s working hard, and they’re so positive and energetic. We all are working hard to give our best for the kids.”

Seeing kids say “thank you” or even just a smile are just some of the positive moments Mason High School’s nutrition staff strives for. The staff believes the core of their “positive mentality” stems from their love for the kids. The staff makes cleaning, sanitizing, and nutrition a priority when preparing meals as they all unite under one goal, helping bring positivity into a kid’s day. 

“We’re all moms here on the staff,” Moorhead said. “We love to make sure our children are feeling good and we love looking out for them. We look out for our students in that same way. We all have that goal and we work together to make it all flow and all come out just right.”

Mason High School’s nutrition staff has supported each other through many difficult times. The group has shrunk in size over the past few years, but according to Burkhart, “the smaller our group is, the stronger our bond has become.” 

It is that bond that allowed the staff to heal and grieve the recent death of a nutrition staff member. Burkhart explained how they honored the staff member and looked to each other for support and strength — revealing the ultimate strength of the community they had spent years nurturing.

“We have all been through many challenges,” Burkhart said. “One of the biggest challenges we’ve gone through together as a group was just recently when we lost a former staff member. We were all wearing yellow t-shirts on the day of her funeral [since] we couldn’t be there for her — but we united in that.”

Photo by Janelle Brunswick