Genuine, down to earth, positive, mission driven and compassionate — these are but a few words friends and colleagues use to describe Shannon Solomon. She’s also known for being a servant leader and cheerleader for her school nutrition team at Aurora Public Schools (APS) in Colorado. Solomon wants her team to be the best at whatever they want for themselves. Her leadership approach is straightforward: Hold others accountable with consistency, support, training and love.
“Recently, state auditors said they could see what matters most to Shannon — that they could see the love and care in the staff for feeding kids,” says Katie Lopez, SNS, assistant director, Nutrition Services, APS. “They could see that for staff members, feeding kids isn’t just a job; it’s a purpose to support the future of the country.”
One of Solomon’s colleagues, Gina Lanier, controller, says Solomon’s key leadership characteristics include integrity, gratitude and humility. “Integrity is one of Shannon’s core values,” Lanier explains. “She makes decisions and stays true to herself and what she feels is the right thing to do.”
For example, Solomon found a way to serve menu items with allergens and pork by using labels and offering many menu choices. “Shannon knows how to bend and challenge rules and stay within the parameters,” Lopez adds. “She never says no, but rather she says, ‘Let’s see what we can do. Our goal is always to have full tummies.’”
Solomon exhibits gratitude through instituting recognition programs, like one that honors work excellence. Staff can redeem chips for retail merchandise exclusively selected by and for Nutrition Services employees, such as clothing with the Nutrition Services logo on it. Recognition also includes shout-outs to team members who perform well and motivational back-to-school kickoff events and acknowledgement of all those in the school who support Nutrition Services.
Working hard and with intention has stayed with Solomon since beginning her career at age 19 at Yum! Brands Inc. in Oregon. Over several years, she worked for corporate-owned locations and was promoted through various positions up to area supervisor and market trainer. At age 21, she met her husband, Sean Karl Solomon Sr. They married and moved to Colorado, where they became the proud parents of five children (and now three grandchildren). Solomon continued working for a corporate Yum! Brands/Taco Bell in assorted management and coaching positions.
Although Solomon’s career was progressing, something was missing in her life. “To set an example for our kids and our family members, none of whom had graduated college, I received my bachelor’s degree when I was 39 years old and my master’s degree soon after,” she explains. Doing something like this required Solomon to make some changes. She felt she couldn’t complete her education, be a mother of five and work full-time at a restaurant. So, Solomon left her job and became a high school kitchen manager at APS in April 2008. She worked from 6 a.m. until 2:30 p.m., while also going to school. She moved her way up the career ladder to coordinator of nutrition in May 2012, to assistant director of nutrition in April 2015 and director in January 2017.
Solomon says one of her top accomplishments at APS is creating an A-Team culture that encourages team members to understand they are part of something bigger than just themselves. Other important accomplishments include continuing to serve more meals and more children while establishing quality and service models for excellence. “We strive every day to get better than we were before,” Solomon adds.
This passion to feed students and support her team members establishes APS Nutrition Services as a beacon for school districts nationwide.
During the first year and a half of the COVID-19 pandemic, APS Nutrition Services received unprecedented accolades from Coloradans and others around the country. APS served more than 8 million meals to families over 18 months. The district first established 16 meal pickup locations where families could pick up meals — and then added 38 more — to have 54 pickup spots when school was in session and students were learning remotely. APS also partnered with Children’s Hospital Colorado to host food bank sites where people could pick up shelf-stable goods.
Considering Solomon’s commercial restaurant background, it’s no wonder she and her team consider each foodservice venue a restaurant where students should want to eat.
Because choices appeal to students, APS Nutrition Services responds by offering multiple menu choices at all schools. In the high schools, Solomon’s team developed the A-Town Eats concept to appeal to teens who like dining at popular QSRs. The A-Town Eats menu includes quarter-pound burgers, special salads, bento boxes and breakfast burritos. In addition, this spring, two high schools will offer drive-thru services in two trailer truck-style kiosks.
Along with creating opportunities and more options, Solomon advocates for collaboration. “Shannon believes in partnerships,” says Lopez. As one example, for summer foodservice, APS Nutrition Services partnered with the city of Aurora. Team members secured buses that were once used for student transportation to take menu items to places where students hung out during the summer, like pools and parks.
Solomon loves to offer samples of what the team serves in the schools at events for parents and the community. Feedback helps the team get better.
“Shannon gives all of us opportunities to grow through providing growth ladders,” Lopez says. Examples include organizing a book club focused on leadership topics, and internal and external training opportunities such as attending conferences and taking classes. “All this gives staff the realization that they can have a career — not just a job,” she adds.
While rightly proud of all APS has accomplished, Solomon is by no means satisfied. She would like to increase what is now insufficient warehouse space to store farm-to-school produce sourced from local farmers and grown by the school. Her goal is to add an additional 16,000 square feet for dry storage, 7,500 square feet for refrigerated items and 30,000 square feet for frozen foods. In addition, she wants to renovate the commissary kitchen. “I want to support APS and surrounding districts to provide fresh, quality food every single day,” she adds.
Part of Solomon’s wish could come to fruition, as a gift to APS Nutrition Services recently arrived. Colorado voters passed a proposition that allows all students at APS and throughout Colorado to receive free meals. Surely, this will be another support for Solomon as she lives her passion to feed as many students as possible.
Colorado Association of School Business Officials, secretary treasurer
International Association of School Business Officials, education committee member
Colorado School Nutrition Association, past president
School Nutrition Association (SNA), served on various task forces and committees and continues to be an active member
Institute of Child Nutrition, national advisory and strategic planning committee
K12 Powerplant Network (a Foodservice Powerplant company), hosts conversations for K-12 professionals on Facebook/LinkedIn
Influencer Give & Take
Tell us about one person who influenced your life.
My husband, Sean Karl Solomon Sr., is my best friend and [my] person. He has always encouraged me to push myself and be the best version of myself daily. He loves unconditionally, but challenges regularly. He respects and appreciates our differences and is always the one I want to share my entire journey with. He is one of the greatest deep thinkers I know and is a lifelong learner. His passion for history, truth, growth and inclusivity are what I admire most about him.
How would others say you influence them?
I encourage them to be the best versions of themselves daily. I hold others accountable with consistency, support, training and love. I advise others to have fun!