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.”
“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.”