Robert Cueller, Director of Child Nutrition, Laredo Independent School District

“Dare to be different. Reach your own star. School food is cool food. Nourishing minds for a brighter future.” These are just a few of the mantras that Robert Cueller, Director of Child Nutrition at Laredo Independent School District, says often and lives by daily. In his district, more than 98 percent of the district’s 24,000 students qualify for free or reduced-price school meals under federal guidelines, qualifying for the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) program where all students get free school meals. Adversity like that would get most people down, but for Robert, it’s a reason to do his job even better.

Q

What got you interested in nutrition?

A

I was born and raised here in Laredo, Texas. My parents’ highest level of education was high school.

When I was in high school, I worked as a junior volunteer at Mercy Hospital. My last rotation was with a dietitian in the cafeteria. I shadowed the dietician and went to patients’ rooms to discuss their dietary needs. It made an impact on me because my dad had diabetes and my mom had high cholesterol and I wanted to help them eat healthier.

I took some classes at Laredo Junior College and decided to pursue degrees in nutrition and Spanish at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio. Mind you, this was history in the making because no one in my family had ever gone to a university.

Q

What were some the stops on your journey back to Laredo?

A

After college, I began to work at WIC in San Antonio as the Women and Children Nutrition Education Coordinator. I feel in my heart that I have a gift to communicate with and empower people to eat healthy. While working there, I would teach nutrition classes in English and Spanish. I even created a puppet show that I called, “Munchies Lunch Adventure” to teach children the importance of healthy eating.

My wife wanted to move back to Laredo, but I needed a job. I learned of an opening at Laredo WIC and became their nutritionist. While working at Laredo WIC, I pursued a Masters degree at Texas A&M University in public heath with a focus on health policy and management and in 2004, I began to work for the Laredo Independent School District as a menu planner. I was promoted to Director of Child Nutrition in 2011.

Q

Volunteerism has played a big role in your career. How has it impacted your journey?

A

When I volunteered in the hospital in Laredo I met someone from Laredo WIC and also began volunteering there. At the time, I found myself wondering if volunteering at WIC was worth it but my grandma always encouraged me by saying, “Bobby mijito, volunteer your hours and it will pay off.” Deep down, I agreed with her.

Fast forward several years later, and when I applied to be a nutritionist at Laredo WIC, the WIC director remembered me from my volunteer days and I got the job. I thank God that my grandma encouraged me to volunteer.

Q

Who or what inspires you?

A

I would consider my parents and grandparents catalysts for change. My grandmother, Olga, instilled in me a spirit of initiative. Some of what I’ve done in my life has been done to honor my grandmother who is no longer here on earth, but I know spiritually she is always with me. Spirituality and growth are also very important parts of my life.

But I would have to say that my biggest inspiration is my better half, my wife, Cynthia. She balances and supports me, during good times and bad, and she has been a pinnacle to my success.

Q

You are known for your innovations in menu-planning. How do you create your menus?

A

We started Advisory Committees to allow groups of students from the elementary and secondary schools to taste tests menu items for the following school year. Their feedback has helped shape what we serve, like adding a salad bar.

About five years ago, we stared hosting a food expo extravaganza in the beginning of December. We bring in vendors and allow a group of about 400 to 500 students to taste-test items for the February menu. We also invite parents to this event.

I have also collaborated with culinary arts students to have the Iron Chef Student Recipe Contest. The students must prepare a recipe that meets USDA standards and must use pulled pork. The winner gets to showcase the recipe in the spring menu. The students feel so empowered and excited by this.

Q

How do fresh fruits and vegetables make it to the students’ plates?

A

All our secondary schools have salad bars and I’m excited to say that we now have six elementary schools with salad bars. We still have 14 elementary schools that need it but I’m optimistic and eventually all our schools will have salad bars.

I can’t forget the fresh fruit and vegetable program through the grant from the Texas Department of Agriculture that enables us to provide a snack of fresh fruits or vegetables in the morning or afternoon.

Q

How have the students received the salad bars?

A

We first brought salad bars to the secondary schools is 2013. The next year, we added five elementary schools and this year we were able to add one more elementary school.

One thing that’s been very helpful is that we have food court concept in the secondary schools. We typically see about half of the students using the salad bars, give or take.

We have also impacted the staff because now when they want to get a salad, where do you think they go? Their own school’s cafeteria!

Q

Kids can be tough customers; how do you make healthy food appealing?

A

I can be challenging at times, but I’ve found that if you use a lot of color, nice signage and add a bit of encouragement, they will eat it.

We also have our own milk-mustache campaign where we take not only the school’s athletic stars, but we involve kids from chess, choir, band, you name it and take photos of them with their milk mustaches.

We also have truck wraps on the delivery trucks that feature positive nutritional messages, including some of the photos from our milk mustache campaign.

I also created mascots, “Foodie Fun Pal” and “Henry the Health Charger” and we have had pep rally-style events to get the kids excited about eating fresh produce. Marketing and promoting healthy eating is so important.

Q

What is your biggest challenge and greatest reward?

A

There isn’t a big challenge, we do our best to overcome any obstacles by always having a plan B. I do have some nay-sayers, don’t think that everything has been peachy keen. I try to win them over by having one positive message: to give every student a healthy meal.

I get more and more excited every day because things are coming into place in the way that I have envisioned them. The biggest reward is sharing my gifts with other people. Making food exciting.