Jeff Denton: Focus on Education
As director of child nutrition at the 5,300-student Ponca City (Okla.) School District, Jeff Denton knows he plays an important role in the educational process. During the past couple of years, Denton’s focus on nutrition education has reaped huge dividends in terms of participation—96% for lunch—and has made Denton a local celebrity.
“I never really wore the chef title,” Denton says. “I was always director. Now, I’m Chef Jeff.”
Chef Jeff is the persona Denton created a few years ago to help students associate him not only as a chef but also as the district’s foodservice director. “It started out as a simple thing to promote a fruit and veggie bar in one school,” he says. “I did an assembly in a school to promote the bar and I went in as Chef Jeff. I talked about fruits and veggies, not boring stuff but something exciting with facts they didn’t know and the history behind the items. I had been trying to get into the schools to do nutrition education and we could never get in, but one forward-thinking principal gave me an opportunity.”
What started as a simple three-minute presentation to promote a fruit and veggie bar quickly blossomed into a full-fledged Chef Jeff program, which now includes a television show, cooking camp and culinary demos. Denton no longer has to fight for time to speak to students outside the cafeteria. He does an assembly every day at one of the district’s 12 schools, promoting healthy eating habits and overall wellness.
Lights, camera, action: One of the biggest projects Denton has taken on with the Chef Jeff program is a weekly cooking show called KIDchen Cooking with Chef Jeff. The show is a throwback to shows Denton watched as a child. “When I was growing up we had local television shows with a gallery of kids in the audience. You came home from school and you would watch those shows.” Denton used that concept to create KIDchen Cooking with Chef Jeff, which started in January 2009 and airs on a local station.
Once a month, Denton tapes several episodes with a live studio audience made up of children from the district and community. The shows focus on nutrition education, starting with the farm and ending with a plate of prepared foods.
“We have a professor on the show named Professor Ricky who always has a crazy food experiment that goes bad,” Denton says about one of the segments on the show. “I’m usually the victim of the experiment. We have a house band and we have kid chefs who help prepare things.” Chef Jeff also touches on wellness and educational issues like reading and physical activity during the show. Each show airs nine times a week and DVDs are available for purchase.
Denton says that the time and energy he puts into the show have been beneficial. “This has been really effective to get kids to identify who I am and what we [as a department] represent.”
Denton is in the process of securing funding to broadcast the show on a statewide public television station next year.
Another component of the Chef Jeff program is a summer culinary camp for elementary students called the Junior Chef Camp. “We aren’t teaching them ants on a log with peanut butter and raisins,” Denton says. “We teach them how to make actual sauces, salad dressings, baking and how to use a wok.”
Denton teaches the camp’s participants about equipment, safety and dining etiquette in addition to basic cooking techniques. An herb specialist was also brought in to talk with the students.
At last summer’s camp, the students prepared a meal for their parents that included a mixed green salad with a dill cream dressing, fresh-baked bread, chicken Kiev, sautéed fresh vegetables with soy jasmine rice and bananas Foster. “The families were blown away,” Denton says. “We had second and third graders preparing this meal. I just stood around to keep them from getting hurt.
“Nutrition education has been our calling card, which most child nutrition programs don’t venture into because it is so time-consuming,” Denton says. “I am fortunate because I have a wonderful staff that sees the vision and chips in. They tell me after we do things that they will never do it again, and then they agree to do it again.”