Culinary Creator Helps Feed the Next Generation

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Like her peers in the nonprofit community, Shirley Shankle is lending her talents to a greater cause. And that cause needs to be fed.

“We serve breakfast, lunch, and two snacks,” she said of the daily schedule at Winter Park Day Nursery. “It’s all done in-house; I make my own sauces, cut up the lettuce for the salads, make meatloaf from scratch.”

As kitchen manager, the nutritional needs of children from infants to 5-year-olds have been her priority for more than 21 years. Shankle’s extensive experience includes culinary arts training at Lake Technical College, 20 years as food and beverage director at The Country Club of Mount Dora, and two years teaching culinary arts at Umatilla High School. But when she began her duties at the Day Nursery, she discovered there was still more to learn.

Shankle focuses her years of experience on helping students appreciate good nutrition while she works within state and federal guidelines, and sticks to the school budget.

“I’ll never forget my first day – they sent me in the kitchen and there was a five-pound bag of grits on the table,” she recalls with a laugh. “I don’t know if you know anything about grits, but oh my gosh that will feed an army and I’m thinking, what did I get myself into?”

Her introduction may have been comical, but Shankle is serious about maintaining standards that require fresh food and ample time for preparation. Her day begins at 5:30 a.m. with a total of three hours prep time for breakfast, which begins at 8:30 a.m., and then the 11:30 a.m. lunch service.

“We have to serve a whole grain and vitamin C every day, and fresh fruits and vegetables at least three times a week,” Shankle said. Items like tomatoes, carrots and strawberries often come from the school’s garden, where students can see how their food is grown. Shankle says certain items can be left off the menu for religious observation and vegetarian diets, and peanuts can be excluded for allergies.

Meatless and dairy-free options are provided with whole-grain, vitamin C and fresh produce requirements. Shankle creates a six-week rotating menu schedule so that students can experience a variety of new dishes.

“Not only is Shirley a great cook, she is essentially a nutritionist, a mathematician and an accountant.,” said Winter Park Day Nursery Executive Director Ali DeMaria. Aside from nutritional requirements, Shankle is well-versed in federal food program rules and keeps in step with the school budget and students’ changing tastes. “Our students may like one dish or dislike another, and she is continuously updating her menus based on the availability and cost of ingredients,” DeMaria said.

After the food leaves the kitchen, an equally important set of standards begins. “We serve family-style so (the children) have to take the bowl and pass it around,” Shankle said. “And a teacher has to sit at the table to promote good table manners and good conversation and things like that.”

Navigating a pandemic and inflation are among the challenges Shankle has faced during her tenure. She knows that finding solutions is not just important for the school, but for the children and their families. “When I first started, more families were below the poverty level than there are now,” she said. “There were a lot of children who, if you asked them what they had for dinner, they’d tell you it was the last meal that we served the day before.”

Students delight in watching Shankle harvest fruits and vegetables from the school garden to use in their weekly menu.

In addition to serving kids during school hours, Shankle helps busy parents through the Day Nursery’s Super Supper program. The precooked meals are offered twice monthly and can feed one adult and two children at a cost of $7. She makes note of the most popular items and will take requests from parents to add unique dishes into the rotation. “Last month we did a great northern bean soup loaded with ham and potatoes with corn bread. Then we did a chicken enchilada casserole,” she said. “It’s an alternative to stopping at McDonald’s on the way home from work, and also a way to let parents just spend quality time with their children at the end of the day.”

While she is not part of the teaching staff, Shankle gets plenty of student interaction; from menu questions to help during clean-up. DeMaria, whose children attended Winter Park Day Nursery, also gives Shankle props for her culinary chops that she shares with parents looking for ways to make mealtime more appealing. “I can say that, as a parent, I essentially model our meals at home after what she does here,” DeMaria said. “I give her 100% credit for my children not being picky eaters.”

“It’s fun to see their eyes light up when I come in with the food cart,” Shankle said. “Just to help keep them fed so they can play and learn – it’s a great place to work and a fun job to have.”

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