Public school meals have come a long way in the last decade, and school cooks have always been among the varied and vital people upholding the well-being of our communities.

GROVE - If asked, most could easily summon the name of their favorite public school teacher or principal.

But what about the name of an honored school chef? That is likely a much harder task for most, and that's something to consider.

When thinking about school cooks, there is a tendency to linger on outdated "lunch lady" stereotypes and unappetizing mounds of overly processed foods. However, public school meals have come a long way in the last decade, and school cooks have always been among the varied and vital people upholding the well-being of our communities.

Although often overlooked, school chefs are responsible for feeding thousands upon thousands of children in Oklahoma every year. Sometimes they are the only ones providing meals to a child during school semesters. That's pretty significant in a state that consistently ranks as one of the highest in food insecurity.

According to the latest data from the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma, 29.6 percent of children in Ottawa County and 29.5 percent in Delaware County are food insecure. That's almost a third of the children in these neighboring communities who don't have consistent access to food.

While jarring, those statistics also point back to the importance of public school meal programs and the cooks who implement them.

Keeping public school meal programs nutritious, rules compliant, and enticing to students is a complicated balancing act. One that is made even more difficult as schools face increasing budget restraints with state funding to public education continuing to lag.

One of the supports in place to meet those goals is the annual Delaware and Ottawa County School Chef Workshop.

The workshop, in its third year, is a cooperative partnership between the Cherokee Nation, Delaware County Community Partnership (DCCP) and the Partners for Ottawa County, Inc. (POCI).

The program began with funding through a grant from the Cherokee Nation.

"Three years ago we got a grant from Cherokee Nation. It's called PICH, Partners to Improve Community Health, and the grant is to help the community and nutrition in the schools, farm to school and things like that," said DCCP President Jenniffer Clark. "We took that money, and we started this training."

Clark explained that with schools contending with budget cuts, cooks in the region started having to travel much further away, at their own expense, to receive training that would fulfill their annual requirement for a minimum of six professional development hours.

"We wanted to make it very easy for them, for Delaware and Ottawa County, to get all of their training in one day," said Clark. "They get six hours of training, and we have volunteers that come in to do the speaking, so we are able to provide this to them for free."

The workshop this year was held Wednesday, Aug. 2 inside the Grove Upper and Middle School cafeterias and included standard training presentations, breakout sessions, roundtable discussions and team building exercises.

Clark said this year's event also took a bit of a new approach with a focus on strengthening team building and including a segment on self-care.

"This year we actually did something different. We did more team building and even heart health with a segment where they learned about their own heart," said Clark. "They are taking care of kids and their health, so this year we focused a little more on the cooks themselves. That was a new thing we wanted to include because they are so worried about everyone else, and they really need to take care of themselves to keep going."

Additional resources for the workshop came from a wide swath of agencies and businesses such as TSET (Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust), ROCMND Regional Prevention Coordinator, Oppa! Food Managment, Inc., INTEGRIS Health, and the OSU Extension.

Contending with budget cuts area schools have come to depend on additional funding from community collectives, non-profits and contracting partnerships with food management services, which all contribute to nutrition programs that meet state regulations and satisfy students and parents.

One of the highlights of the event was an "Iron Chef" team building competition overseen by Opaa! regional director of operations, Kelli Keegan-Moring.

"The Iron Chef challenges are to build well-rounded meals and snacks using only the fresh ingredients we provided," said Keegan-Moring. "The tables compete against each other, and they have cooks working together from a mix of different schools."

Funding from PICH and the TSET Healthy Living Program also provided a chance at several door prizes as well as a gift bag and apron for each school cook.

"These kinds of programs are very important," said ROCMND RPC Ottawa County preventionist, Clarissa Sumpter. "It's good for the cooks, and it's good for the community, so it is really good for the kids."

Dorothy Ballard is the managing news editor of the Miami News-Record. Contact her at and follow her on Twitter @dm_ballard.