As we close out Black History Month, Rise and Shine Illinois would like to highlight the journey and accomplishments of a Black Child Nutrition Director who never fails to show up for their school district! Rise and Shine Illinois had the opportunity to interview Marcus Shelton, Director of Nutrition Services for Berkeley School District 87, about his personal and professional experiences with food access and child nutrition. His familiarity with these topics shapes his approach towards child nutrition and food accessibility and informs how he interacts with Berkeley SD’s culturally and economically diverse student body.
Shelton described growing up in Evanston as living in a bubble. Though he received reduced-price school lunch, he did not experience food insecurity during childhood, and it was not visible in his community, especially in the eyes of an elementary school student. The number of people who received free or reduced lunch became more noticeable in middle school and high school. Marcus said, “The biggest change I saw was when some kids joked about other kids getting free lunch, which prompted me to start bringing my own”. Shelton’s previous work in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) influenced how he approaches food access and hunger among his student population as well. While working in CPS, he encountered two students who were heavily impacted by food insecurity. Witnessing the extent at which these kids were experiencing hunger was heartbreaking and encouraged him to get to know his students better, which continues to be a priority for Marcus. He learns their name and asks them about their day and their hobbies. He does his best to mentor them and show unwavering compassion and support.
As a nutrition director, Marcus aims to think outside of the box and make eating fun and engaging for kids, helping to destigmatize school meals in the process! While students eat their afterschool snacks, he has them draw their “ideal cafeteria” so they’re having fun as they eat. As a treat for a district wide spelling bee, Shelton put together a frozen yogurt bar for students and included a variety of healthy toppings that they could add to their yogurt. From receiving reduced lunch as a kid, to now being a professional in the field, Marcus realizes that young people need reassurance that there is nothing wrong with eating school meals. It can be fun, help build community, and act as an avenue for young people to be exposed to foods they may not have regular access to.
Having seen the lengths kids will go to eat when they are hungry, community feeding is a pressing matter for Marcus. He explains that “The goal is to have free lunch for everyone. We’ve been doing it since the pandemic started so why not keep going”. Throughout this interview, Marcus emphasized how big of an impact community feeding has had on the lives of students and families in the Berkeley SD.
At the end of the day, Marcus loves what he does. “It keeps me youthful, and it’s my passion so it doesn’t feel like work,” said Shelton. His past experiences with school nutrition and food accessibility affects how he leads Berkeley’s nutrition program and connects with kids in the district. He centers his students and the experiences they should have with food and school nutrition, all while simultaneously breaking down stereotypes and stigmas surrounding school feeding programs. He is certainly making a positive impact on the lives of students in his district. Because of this, many of the memories they make in Berkeley SD’s cafeterias will stay with them forever!