Jeff Denton: Focus on Education

“Jeff is always coming up with new ideas,” says Liz Glaser, assistant director of child nutrition. “He came up with this character, Chef Jeff, and developed one-on-one relationships with the kids.”

Glaser says one of Denton’s ideas to connect with the students was to go behind the lines and prepare a made-to-order meal one Wednesday a month. The meal is typically an ethnic dish like lettuce wraps.

“You can’t go anywhere with Jeff because the kids maul him calling for Chef Jeff,” Glaser says. “The students truly do love him and listen to what he says. We have really been able to educate the students and we are seeing the effects in our secondary schools.”

One of the biggest results has been the amount of fruits and vegetables the students eat, especially at the secondary level. Since starting the Chef Jeff educational program, fruit and vegetable consumption has increased 60%. “I really believe that the foundation of good nutrition starts when kids are very young,” Denton says. “By catching them young we have made a huge impact on their eating habits and we are seeing it now as they progress into high school.”

Offering options: Participation has also increased. “Before Jeff came to the district, a good day on the reimbursable line at the high school was 130 meals purchased,” Glaser says. “Now the reimbursable line is 700 plus a day.”

Glaser says participation has increased because Denton knows what the students want, which isn’t surprising since Denton was once a student in the district. “Kids eat differently than adults,” he says. “We try to get them to eat in combinations of food we like. We might have a pizza item and chicken and mashed potatoes and gravy, but the students may get pizza and mashed potatoes and gravy. As an adult, we are going, ‘what are you doing,’ but for the child that’s exactly what they want, and we let them do it.”

The district’s menu is full of selections and build-it-yourself options. Eight entrées—two hot, three salads and three sandwiches—and 10 side dishes are offered daily. “We have a five-week cycle menu, but we never repeat an entrée in a month,” Denton says. “You’re not going to get chicken strips every Wednesday and pizza every Friday. You might get a different type of chicken, but you’re not going to get the same thing.”
Denton says offering so many choices and allowing students to mix and match is a big reason why the district has a lunch participation rate of 96%.

It hasn’t always been easy, Denton admits. Before joining the district 20 years ago, Denton owned several restaurants. “It was a culture shock,” Denton says about the switch from commercial to non-commercial foodservice. “When I first came to the district, however many teachers we had, that was how many bosses I had because everyone was an expert on child nutrition.”

At first, Denton says, cutting through the bureaucratic red tape often associated with school districts was a challenge, but he says building relationships with teachers and administrators helped him start programs such as breakfast in the classroom and Layers of Flavors, a build- your-own concept in the secondary schools.

Layers of Flavors starts with a base such as a hamburger, salad or rice bowl to which students can add from a selection of toppings and sauces to create the flavor profile they want. This concept has been so successful that Denton implemented a build-your-own burrito kiosk in November. Students can select from a 10-inch tortilla, a taco bowl or a rice bowl. Protein options for the burritos are pork, chicken or beef, and 10 different toppings can be added. The burrito is part of a reimbursable meal.

“You can start with one item and add things to it to create a flavor profile that is as drastic as you can get,” Denton says. “This way you can cater to the specific tastes of kids. We have about a 10% plate waste. When you give students the choices and let them build what they want, they are going to eat it. But if you just slap a meal up there that they may not want, they aren’t going to eat it and you waste the food.”

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