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Culinary training program serving up tasty results for Oklahoma students and school nutrition professionals

Although Nancy Sitler, child nutrition director for Sapulpa Public Schools, thought she and her staff were providing solid meal service in the six kitchens across the district, she was nervous about inviting an outside chef consultant to review operations.

“I was actually scared to death to have the one-on-one consultation,” she said.

Despite the nerves, Sitler turned to Cooking for Kids, an innovative, statewide initiative offering low- to no-cost culinary training to child nutrition professionals.

“I guess I shouldn’t have worried because Chef Callie [Fowler] was great,” Sitler said. “She made some suggestions on a few minor improvements for preparation procedures, but her main emphasis was helping us to sell our program, which is one area where I knew we needed help.”

The one-on-one chef consultations are the newest addition to Cooking for Kids’ menu of training options for Oklahoma schools.

“We know that each school district has unique needs, so just to do skill development training, one-size-fits all, is only good up to a point,” said Deana Hildebrand, project director, associate professor, nutritional sciences, and Extension nutrition specialist at Oklahoma State University.

Each year for the next three years, Cooking for Kids chefs will work directly with 25 schools by assisting with needs assessments; identifying goals, areas of development and potential barriers; and providing food service operations and culinary arts expertise.

The goal? To enhance the overall meal service experience – both for students and school nutrition professionals.

The consultations are free but schools must apply for the assistance, which lasts for about 12 months.

Though its early yet in the first round of consults, equipment, staffing and time management have emerged as major challenges for schools.

“Many people have multiple jobs within our kitchens. It’s looking at how to best utilize one’s time to get things done and making sure we’re not sacrificing the quality of the food for budget or equipment. Every school has child nutrition employees who need help with their skill set,” said Fowler.

Interestingly, Fowler, who also has been the executive chef for child nutrition for Union Public Schools for two years, believes the ambitious effort is transforming the food kids eat at school as well as the individuals who are preparing that food.

With its aggressive push for more scratch cooking and an increase in fresh fruits and vegetables, Cooking for Kids is encouraging child nutrition professionals to move from serving highly processed foods to preparing amazing food kids need and want to eat.

“Cooking for Kids has been this great springboard for these individuals, giving them not only life skills, but also providing an outlet for child nutrition to shine,” Fowler said. “I feel like Cooking for Kids definitely shines the spotlight on what these extraordinary individuals are doing and the impacts they’re making on these kids.”

In the third year of a five-year partnership between the OSU College of Human Sciences, Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service and Oklahoma State Department of Education, Cooking for Kids is funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The program is free and open to participating schools.

Cooking for Kids includes skills development training with a heavy focus on increasing participants’ proficiency in areas such as scratch cooking, knife skills and marketing cafeteria options to students.

Once schools have completed the three-day skills development training, they become eligible to apply for one-on-one consultations.

Four Sapulpa school nutrition professionals have successfully completed skills development training. As a result of those experiences, Sitler said one employee who attended the training earlier this year later became a manager and is thriving in the role.

Meanwhile, two others gained an important boost of confidence to try offering new menu items, including options kids were going off campus to buy, after their training experience.

“I believe any training that my ladies can receive, where they are more confident in their abilities to prepare and market our meals is a huge benefit,” Sitler said.

Hildebrand said Cooking for Kids is an interdisciplinary program that truly exemplifies the land-grant university mission by combining the science of nutrition, the business of operations and the culinary arts to the benefit of the state’s school nutrition programs.

The overall approach seems to be working. Evaluations from 2015 indicate training participants have increased knowledge in a range of areas such as nutrition, knife skills, use of standardized recipes, time management, food safety and professionalism.

Just as telling, interest in additional training from participants who have completed skill development and one-on-one consultations is so high that administrators are exploring creating another layer of learning opportunities for alumni of the program.

Over the course of its initial five-year run, Cooking for Kids anticipates impacting about half of the approximately 540 Oklahoma school districts through its training opportunities.

“We know eating healthier foods is going to lead to better health and kids will do better in school because they’re not sick,” Hildebrand said. “If kids learn to eat healthy at school, maybe it’s something that will stay with them. They’ll do better in school, they’ll have better health outcomes and be more productive Oklahomans.”

Fowler is sure the affects of Cooking for Kids will be felt deeply across the state, nation and world for years to come, particularly as the country battles obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other health challenges.

“We’re raising the next generation of eaters. It’s especially important to set taste expectations and eating habits at a young age,” she said. “When children are consuming up to three plus meals at school, it’s our responsibility to make sure what we’re serving is nutritious and they learn healthy eating habits.”

 

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REPORTER/MEDIA CONTACT:
Leilana McKindra
Communications Specialist
Agricultural Communications Services
158 Agriculture North
Oklahoma State University
Stillwater, OK 74078
Phone: 405-744-6792
Fax: 405-744-5739
Email: leilana.mckindra@okstate.edu

Oklahoma State University - Stillwater, OK 74078
405.744.5000

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