Lunch is Served: MISD Culinary Trainer & Chef Combines Passion With Healthy Food for Students
Jul 19, 2016 11:07AM ● Published by Melanie Heisinger
Hunter Oeffner, Mansfield ISD’s culinary trainer and chef
School lunch. Those very words conjure up shuddering memories of rubbery meat and runny applesauce for many of us. But things are different today as school districts hire skilled nutritionists and trained chefs to prepare fresh menus and well-balanced, nutrition-infused culinary choices for a new generation of kids. Hunter Oeffner is one such person.
Oeffner serves as the Mansfield ISD’s culinary trainer and chef and he’s beginning his third year with the district this fall. He describes three facets of his job. First, he says, he trains personnel in the Student Nutrition Department, and also creates training material to help in this process. Second, he develops new recipes following USDA guidelines, improves existing recipes and also creates posters and videos to help ensure consistency and reflect the standards required. Third, he serves as a community outreach or “face of the department” for Student Nutrition for events like career days and programs like Chew Chew I Tried Something New. “It’s a larger job than fits under a single job description,” he says.
Oeffner says he grew up in a poor working class family. He remembers his grandmother learning to cook while serving in the Civilian Conservation Corp. and says she was known for preparing over-seasoned and overcooked food. “Heck, I didn’t know a pork chop wasn’t supposed to be black until I got into my twenties,” he says. But his upbringing, need to work at an early age and exposure to his grandmother’s cooking helped shape the course of his life.
“I learned what I like, what the consumer preferred and that the idea of ‘fine cuisine’ is perception and opinion as much the quality of the meal,” he says. He learned to always follow the recipe because it’s written for a reason and as a result, a lot less “oops” occur when the foundation is poured correctly.
The last three decades of his life have been spent primarily in the restaurant business. He spent 19 years working for the late restaurateur Duff Massey (River House, Shrimper’s, Lucille’s and Bill Martin’s) and 13 years working for companies like WhichWich, Cici’s Pizza, Buffalo Wild Wings and Sbarro, where he worked in R&D and staff development. He’s also overseen his own Happy Samaritan Caterng Company since 2000. He describes that endeavor as, “A church-friendly catering company specializing in unique comfort food for parties and events.” And he and his wife have been involved in their church’s missionary efforts.
When a family friend who also works for Mansfield ISD told him about the culinary job a couple of years ago, he decided to apply and got the job.
He says what he’s doing today is different because of the kids. But he says he’s happier than he’s ever been and loves everything about making sure the kids in the district get great meals every day. He views the students as customers. “Our ultimate goal is that the campus administration can rest easy and never have to worry about school breakfast or lunch issues,” he says. “We want to be so solid in what we do that the schools can focus 100 percent on the education piece. Students rely on our trays to fuel their minds and bodies for the school day.”
Oeffner thinks of everyone in the nutrition department as a professional team member and says their goal is always to have a well-trained staff, offer fresh new menu choices and to promote nutrition and wellness. That’s where programs like Chew Chew I Tried Something New (see sidebar) come in. He says his department plans on continuing to focus on wellness outreach during the 2016-17 school year and he can’t wait to incorporate additional nutrition-focused events into their services. “We are also opening a brand new Student Nutrition central facility that includes a test kitchen, a training room and an auditorium,” he says.
According to Oeffner, the Mansfield ISD takes existing government nutritional standards, exceeds them and makes sure their end product tastes delicious. “We realize it is about both eating healthy and eating well,” he says. “We aren’t saying we won’t serve chicken nuggets and pizza, but we are serving a healthier chicken nugget.” He believes school nutrition often still gets a bad rap and he’s going to continue to try to change that perception.
“The goal and mission of the Mansfield ISD Student Nutrition Department is to show the community that our meals are a great value, that they are delicious and they are truly healthy and made with nutritious ingredients,” he says.
Looks like a lot has changed since many of us attended school.