This past spring, when Gary Gay retired as the director of the Food Distribution Division after 36 years with NCDA&CS, the division staff wanted to celebrate his retirement with a special gift. That gift also turned into a way to honor another long-time employee.
They created the Gary W. Gay Award of Excellence as a way to remember Gay’s contribution to the Department of Agriculture and the division. Gay decided that the first award should be one of distinction, given to honor Bob Sitton. Sitton was the division’s assistant director who had retired just a few months earlier after more than 20 years with the Department of Agriculture.
The new award is an evolution of an honor that Gay and his staff started in 2018. It was a “best practices” award honoring a school and/or a school district for its use of USDA commodity foods and Farm to School foods that are shipped through the division. Upon Gay’s retirement, the staff decided to rename the award as the Gary Gay Award of Excellence.
“Bob’s contribution to the division was significant, and we didn’t really get to honor him in any way. His retirement was virtual [because of the pandemic],” explained Vicky Cox, the field services administrator who heads the award’s application and selection process. “For Gary, this was a way to honor Bob for all his contributions over the years and honor him in the way we really couldn’t in November.”
The public recognition came during the School Nutrition Association of North Carolina’s state conference near the end of June. Although there were required safety protocols in place, they were able to meet in person this year. Gay was able to present Sitton with the award in front of many of the people in school nutrition whom Sitton had worked with for many years.
“It was Gary’s way of giving a final thank you,” Cox said.
New name. Expanded scope.
With the renaming of the award, the scope of honorees is also changing and expanding. The previous Food Distribution “best practices” award sought to highlight schools that came up with innovative ways to incorporate USDA commodities and Farm to School commodities into their school nutrition programs. It was essentially an award to recognize innovation, but in creating the award, Gay realized there would be another benefit too.
“It was a way to highlight how well a school did but also give other school districts ideas, to encourage them and spark ideas for other school districts – to spur the use of USDA foods and Farm to School foods in school,” Cox said. “We hoped school nutrition leaders would think ‘if this school can do that, maybe we can too.’ We were able to highlight what a school district did and how it impacted the community. It opened up a conversation.”
With the renaming, the award will broaden to recognize customer service, which Gay was known for promoting. That could still mean recognizing a school for innovative use of commodities, but it could also focus on a single person for making a difference in the school nutrition and food distribution arena.
Renaming the award for Gary Gay will be a lasting way to honor him and carry on his legacy of customer service. At the same time, honoring Sitton with the first Gary Gay award helped transition the award to a broader focus on customer service. The timing was particularly good in a year when the pandemic forced many schools into survival mode and disrupted how they may have planned to use commodities coming through Food Distribution.
“As far as customer service, Bob was very deserving,” said Heather Eatmon who also helps coordinate the award for the division. “He handled emergency operations as our liaison. He oversaw daily operations and ‘Bob’s List’ and managed school entitlement funds. He helped manage overstock or under purchases, which is where Bob’s List came in.”
His involvement seemed endless, Eatmon said. In coordinating with the Emergency Operations Center during disasters, Sitton worked out of the center in Raleigh to coordinate food and supply shipments. Bob’s List was an online clearinghouse that helped school nutrition programs share food shipments when they had too much or needed more to fit their budgets. (Read more in a previous blog post.)
“Bob was someone who would always do anything and everything that was needed,” Cox said.
A major part of Sitton’s job was coordinating with schools, and since he first began working with the division as a field representative, he’d previously worked even more closely with school nutrition staff.
“He was great at communicating with schools, and that’s where his customer service really shined, even more than it already did with everything else he did,” Eatmon said.
Sitton received a crystal tractor-trailer for his retirement, so for the inaugural Gary Gay award, he received framed artwork. It’s expected to be the only time an item like that is gifted for the award.
Cox and Eatmon said the overall scope of the newly envisioned award is still being worked out. The criteria, selection process, etc., should take shape in time for notices to go out late this year or early next year. The physical award itself will continue to be a crystal tractor-trailer truck – a replica of the tractor-trailers that are integral to the Food Distribution Division’s work. It’s a highly coveted award in North Carolina’s school nutrition community, and while the name and focus of the award has changed, that crystal truck is what people will still be fighting for, Eatmon said in jest.