Since arriving as Turlock Unified School District’s new Child Nutrition Director last spring, Jennifer Lew-Vang has taken it upon herself to help implement new ideas and programs at school sites meant to help students get the best out of their education through food. Now, those efforts are also helping college students who may one day want to oversee a school district’s nutrition department as well.
Six Certified Dietary Manager interns from Merced College wrapped up their final day with TUSD last week, completing required hours of supervised field experience for the junior college’s Nutrition 37 course, part of the Nutrition and Foods major. Students in the class typically intern in Merced schools and skilled nursing facilities, said instructor Michelle Pecchenino, but COVID closures had the JC scrambling to find a host site.
Luckily, TUSD and Lew-Vang seized the opportunity.
“We’re really grateful Jennifer was so willing to take on our students and when I saw the facility, I knew they'd have a great experience here,” Pecchenino said. “Food is universal, so I feel like the more exposure to different food settings, the better.”
After successfully completing all of their coursework this semester, the interns will receive their Dietetic Service Supervisor certificate, which is state-approved through public health, as well as their Certified Dietary Manager Training certificate — both of which allow them to take the national exam and become Certified Dietary Managers. From there, they can enter the realm of food management and apply for a variety of jobs.
Some even transfer to four-year universities and pursue their bachelor’s degrees in order to become registered dieticians, Pecchenino said.
“They’ll really be qualified for whatever kind of work they want to do in food service,” she said. “It really branches out into a lot of different directions and they put in a lot of work in very little time.”
For Lew-Vang, the experience has fondly reminded her of her own days as a dietetic intern. She’s taught the six interns this semester the fundamentals of TUSD’s Child Nutrition program, from how to manage a kitchen and create healthy recipes on a mass scale to mastering the required temperature of a meal and know what tools are required to make it.
“I definitely know how hard it is to be an intern, in addition to going to work and then having to finish schoolwork at the end of the day. As a former intern, I wanted to be able to give that opportunity back and share my knowledge and expertise with the interns that I see,” Lew-Vang said. “There are different layers, and each layer is like an onion. You have to peel it peel by peel, and with every experience we learn from one another.”
The internship at TUSD is important, she added, because it shows students yet another career possibility should they choose to become registered dieticians or enter the food industry at all. The experience not only showcases the different roles and leadership skills available through working in a school district, but also gives an example of an avenue many of the interns may not have considered prior.
“I have a little experience in my own history that I can share and relate to them that honestly, a school district is the place to be,” Lew-Vang said. “I learned a lot from my preceptor, so I try to share more of the soft skills and people skills, like what it takes to manage and to lead a team.”
Intern Israel Alonso said that he originally began Merced College’s Nutrition and Foods major track because he enjoys cooking, but has since become interested in other facets of the industry.
“I have been exposed to so much more in the world of nutrition,” he said. “I definitely see something like child nutrition in my future for sure, but I’m still figuring it out.”