Kristen Bealler, 38, works in child nutrition for Hickory Public Schools. In her free time she enjoys baking and traveling.
“Food can be art,” she said. “It think that’s something I want to focus on how we present food to the kids. It’s not just slop on a plate.”
As the director of child nutrition for Hickory Public Schools, it is Bealler’s job to feed the students well-balanced meals that they will enjoy.
She moved to North Carolina from Missouri in 2008, during a time where there were few places hiring. While searching for a job, Bealler realized her experience qualified her to work in child nutrition. “I’ve worked with food and I love working with kids,” she said. “I guess it was a way of marrying the two without additional schooling.”
She worked for schools in Cabarrus County, Wake County, Stokes County and Davidson County. “I’ve moved around a lot,” Bealler said.
Bealler moved to Sherrills Ford in 2018. In Davidson County, she served as the director for school nutrition for 38 schools, nearly four times more schools than in the Hickory Public Schools district. “I think you get more of a family feel from a smaller county,” she said.
She started her new job as director of child nutrition for Hickory Public Schools just four months before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the schools to close in 2020. Bealler had to find new ways to feed the students. Students couldn’t eat in the cafeteria due to social distancing guideline so meals were delivered on carts.
“School nutrition programs are resilient,” she said. “One way or another we’ll figure out a way to feed the kids.”
The pandemic has prevented her from experimenting with ideas for the school district, but Bealler is hopeful this next school year the students will return to the cafeteria where she can introduce some new menu items.
“With school nutrition we are constantly learning as we go,” she said.
Something new Bealler is hoping to introduce this year is pizza made in-house. “The oven will be there in the window where they can watch as they cook them,” she said. Bealler also plans to introduce Wing Wednesday for high school students.
“We are trying to do something special for them,” she said. “We are trying to get things back to normal as much as possible for the students.”
Bealler is always looking for ideas to provide students with food that they want while making sure they get the nutrients they need.
Bealler makes an effort to talk with kids to find out what it is they enjoy eating, she said. “Jokingly they say filet mignon,” she laughed. “I wish I could give you filet mignon. I would say pizza and chicken. Anything chicken they seem to love.”
In her spare time, Bealler bakes cakes and competes in cooking and baking competitions through the School Nutrition Association of North Carolina, an organization in which Bealler is the current president. In 2011 she entered a lunch tray cake that won first place.
“I started decorating cakes for fun because I was bored,” she said.
These answers have been edited for clarity and length.
What is the most memorable cake you’ve made?: These cakes are very challenging. They take a lot of time and a lot of patience, and sometimes they just don’t work out. A SpongeBob SquarePants cake I made was supposed to be three times taller, so I call it “SquattyBob.” I nearly threw it out the door, but it was a good cake.
What are some of your hobbies?: I’m a foodie. I love trying local mom-and-pop places. The most unique cuisine I’ve had was Ethiopian. It’s a lot of meat that’s kind of stewed. You rip the bread off and then grab the food with it. I also enjoy traveling. My parents reside in Arizona, so this past April when restrictions were lifting I finally got to go see my parents after seven long months. It was a bucket list item to see the Grand Canyon and it did not disappoint. I was able to watch the sun set and rise over the canyon and it was amazing.
What is the most challenging part of being a child nutritionist?: Finding a way to balance all the regulations while bringing the students what they want. We want to give them the world, but there are certain limitations. Finding ways to get through those barriers and find ways to bring current food trends into the school system and give them the most enjoyable experience possible.
What are some ideas you hope to bring to Hickory Public Schools cafeterias?: I would love in the future to find a food bus for school nutrition. I always thought it would be neat to purchase a bus and retrofit it with tables. You can use it to serve meals in the summer and also use it for cooking classes, teaching them how to prepare a certain fruit or vegetable. That’s something that’s going to take a lot of work, but I think it would be really neat.