Steve Marinelli starts his day as Milton’s school food service director at 5:30 a.m. He works with students from preschool to high school, ensuring everyone has nutritious meals to fuel their learning.

While Marinelli spends considerable time behind the scenes in the kitchen, his recent nomination for the LifeChanger of the Year award has thrust him into the spotlight.

The award is presented to K-12 school educators and employees across the U.S. annually by the National Life Group. This year, 17 winners will receive monetary prizes to share with their schools.

“It’s a way to help shine a light and give back to school employees all across the country,” marketing director Mallorie Manosh said. According to National Life, LifeChangers exemplify excellence, a positive influence, leadership and support both school and community.

“I was totally flattered,” Marinelli said of receiving the nomination and subsequent outpouring of support. “It’s nice to see as a school and a community. We’re united about a positive thing that’s happening in our school district.”

Marinelli was recognized at the board’s Dec. 10 meeting, where he received a certificate, applause and congratulations.

“Steve is really a standout person for this award, and he’s created an outstanding food service program here,” superintendent Amy Rex said. “He has a very sensitive and welcoming approach, and I know that our students really thrive because of him.”

Marinelli has forged community partnerships yielding local, nutritional food and created additional education opportunities at the school, according to Rex. He’s introduced students to local farmers and taught them proper recycling. He nurtures students’ interest in cooking through MTSD’s chapter of Junior Iron Chef, a statewide cooking competition for middle and high-schoolers.

“Most importantly, he ensures food security by providing students access to meals year-round,”  Rex said, adding Marinelli works hard to run the summer meals program.

For Marinelli, maintaining a presence in the cafeteria is critical to fostering positive relationships. He mans a register at least once a day so that he can interact with students, turning the canteen into a place of learning.

“I’m very approachable, and it’s important because I always feel that our cafeteria is like your home kitchen where you feel most comfortable,” he said, adding, “Our cafeteria is the largest classroom in the school.”

This year, the LifeChanger award ceremony will bring its top five contestants to Hawaii where a $10,000 grand prize will be bestowed to one educator and their school district. According to Rex, MTSD staff, families and Miltonians can express gratitude and encouragement on Marinelli’s personal LifeChanger page. An independent committee of previous LifeChanger recipients and educators will review these comments and other criteria to select prize winners, according to Manosh.

Should he win, Marinelli hopes the school will use the award to continue its farm-to-table program. Currently, he’s working on creating a community garden and outdoor classroom at the middle school where the cash could help purchase an outdoor pizza oven and food truck, allowing the district’s food services to reach more community members and create additional revenue, he said.

According to Marinelli’s colleague and nominator Keely Agan, his work has inspired a multitude of positive changes. Agan was a Milton student when Marinelli began his tenure and said she watched him transform lunch from a time to eat to an “event” where kids could cook and enjoy healthy, local fare.

“He promotes health and happiness within the community, while always advocating for the things that students and staff need to ensure the best learning environment possible,” she wrote in her nomination letter.

After 37 years in institutional food service—24 in child nutrition—Marinelli is pleased with his work. He said he couldn’t see himself doing anything else or being anywhere else.

“Nutrition is the most important tool for a student to learn,” he said. “If you provide great nutrition, any student can succeed.”

Leave a comment on Steve Marinelli’s LifeChanger page at https://bit.ly/2LnekzZ.