Mark Ward 0000-00-00 00:00:00
A director and his top lieutenant share the secrets to their long-lasting partnership. BY Mark Ward, SR., PHD Meet Jeff Denton As “Chef Jeff,” he has hosted three syndicated television programs, authored four books and given more than 200 motivational speaking presentations across the country. Still, although his name is known across the nation, Jeff Denton’s favorite gigs are the elementary school assemblies he addresses each morning as child nutrition director for Ponca City (Okla.) Public Schools. “I love being in our schools every single day,” he explains, “spending time with our kids, spending time in the kitchens with our staff. I don’t usually get to my office until at least 1:30!” In 22 years at his post, Denton has developed outreach activities that extend his influence far beyond the Sooner State. Nevertheless, he strongly believes the Ponca City school nutrition operation “shouldn’t be seen as ‘Chef Jeff and the staff’ but as ‘the staff and Chef Jeff.’ I may put a face on our program, because I like the creative side and do the upfront work, but that would all be for nothing if our program lacked substance—and our substance is all due to our great staff.” Productive Partnership For example, while Denton may be a fount of new ideas, he readily acknowledges that Assistant Director Liz Glaser (see next page) is “the person in our department who can make anything happen. I may dream it up, but she’s the one who can make it a reality.” The result of their partnership has been a cutting-edge program known for its great menu variety (nothing is repeated for five weeks), high participation rates (which run at about 97%) and financial self-sufficiency (achieved annually since the mid-1990s). A product himself of Ponca City Public Schools, Denton expresses amazement at how much school nutrition has changed. “We didn’t have school lunch here until I was in 6th grade,” he relates, “and when I came in 1990 as director, the program was serving one meal option per day.” By contrast, Ponca City students—at all grade levels—today can choose daily from two hot entrées, three sandwiches, three chef salads and a fresh fruit and vegetable bar. Denton earned a 1982 Oklahoma State University degree in hotel and restaurant administration, and it wasn’t long after graduating that he rose into top management positions. Given his creative bent, he also developed numerous other ventures on the side. For example, by 1990, Denton was managing an independent hotel, leasing and operating its restaurant under his own name, running a catering company, bottling his own barbecue sauce and serving as president of the local chamber of commerce. While he was enjoying the professional challenges, he also had something of a wake-up call: “I remember my wife had just given birth when she drove to the hotel where I was working and said, ‘Meet your son!’” he recounts. “From that day on, I knew that I had to get a more family-friendly career.” Man of Many Hats Someone told Denton that his public school alma mater was looking for a new school nutrition director. “After I was offered the job and decided to accept, there were days I wondered, ‘What have I done?’” he admits. “It was such a huge change and drop in income. But I loved the work and the kids, [and] getting involved in SNA was a tremendous help.” Since then, Denton has gone on to win a FAME Award and serve four times as president of the School Nutrition Association of Oklahoma. Denton’s latest television production is Kidchen Expedition for Oklahoma Farm to School Television (F2S TV). He also is an eclectic author whose four books are aimed at professionals (Don’t Let the Idiots Win, Please Don’t Throw Me Under the Bus), children (Do Cows Eat Cake?) and men of faith (There’s No Crying in Flag Football). Many of the principles conveyed in these books are at the heart of his motivational speaking presentations. While much in this profession has changed for the good, Denton laments how a higher public profile for school meals—which, he concedes, he has helped to create—also has made school nutrition a political football in some quarters. “School nutrition should be about the pure love of feeding kids,” he asserts. “That should be something we can all agree on.” SN Meet Elizabeth Glaser Elizabeth Glaser, assistant director of child nutrition for Ponca City (Okla.) Public Schools, believes her effective partnership with director Jeff Denton (see previous page) is due to both their similarities and differences. “We both grew up in this area in similar families, so we understand each other,” Glaser explains, “and yet our strengths are very different. Jeff always has new ideas, and I enjoy the challenge of figuring ways to make them work. He prefers to be the good cop, while I don’t mind dealing with things head on and, if needed, being the bad cop.” In the 15 years since Denton named Glaser as his assistant director, the two have become a successful team. “I appreciate how Jeff leads through his vision, humor and constant stream of new ideas,” she says, “but also how that’s complemented by his honesty and willingness to pitch in.” For his part, Denton affirms, “Liz and I are opposites in a lot of ways—except in our dedication to school nutrition. I may generate ideas, but I’ve learned to rely on Liz to get things done. When you’ve got someone who’s good at something, you need to let them be good at it!” Partners in Success While Denton excels at representing the school nutrition program and setting its vision and tone, Glaser handles procurement and supervises seven of the district’s 11 feeding sites. Altogether, the department’s 70 employees serve some 5,700 meals per day on a $3 million annual budget. “Having a true customer service orientation is a major emphasis for us,” Glaser reports. “We get to know students by their names and their preferences, so that they feel like ‘regulars.’ Service keeps our students coming back, keeps participation rates above 90% and generates the volume that allows to us offer diverse menus.” Another factor in the program’s success, adds Denton, is the longevity of key staff. “Our core management team has been together 15 years,” he relates. Both director and assistant director attribute the cohesiveness of their team to, as Glaser puts it, “being there for each other through all of our personal tragedies. Life-threatening illnesses, serious car accidents, heartaches over family members—we’ve all experienced major trials.” Finding a Fit Such a trial played a role in launching Glaser’s own school nutrition career. When oil prices collapsed in 1986 and her husband lost his job, she decided to “work in the school system for just one year and then go back to being a stay-athome mom.” But Glaser loved feeding kids and, even though her husband found another job within the year, she decided to stay with it. Denton arrived as director in 1990 and, recognizing her talent, promoted her to high school cafeteria manager in 1993 and then assistant director in 1997. “A big part of my decision to make a career in school nutrition,” Glaser credits, “was getting involved in SNA. I remember attending my first state conference and thinking, ‘Wow! This is a whole new world for me! I’m learning so much!’” A few years later, she attended her first Annual National Conference and has returned every year since. She also served a term in 2006-07 as president of the School Nutrition Association of Oklahoma (SNAO). Glaser cites her job promotions and service as SNAO president as evidence that her boss “leads not only through his vision and ideas, but by seeing the potential in others and encouraging them to pursue their own ideas.” Part of Denton’s communication style is being a good listener and knowing when to back off until the time is right to resolve a conflict. “We’ve never had a disagreement that we couldn’t work out the same day,” she asserts. “Although I’ve never been able to get Jeff to put meatloaf on the menu!” Finally, Glaser appreciates how her boss has groomed her to step into his shoes and be the director of the program, should the need ever arise. “But we all want ‘Chef Jeff’ to stay here as long as possible,” she remarks. “I’m at a stage of my career where I’m happy with my role— and that’s due in large part to being in the kind of workplace where I enjoy coming to my job each morning.”
Published by School Nutrition Association. View All Articles.
This page can be found at http://mydigimag.rrd.com/article/In+Prof%C4%B1le/1162014/124567/article.html.