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Penny Reynolds: Driving Force for Putnam Co. Student Chefs

After a more than 30 year stretch in the classroom, Penny Reynolds (left) was simply not done connecting students with their passion for the Culinary Arts.  Her 2016 retirement from the Carson City School District, in Nevada, made way for a new chapter on her journey, as she transitioned to Georgia to serve as Culinary Arts Instructor at Putnam County High School.  Five years later, Reynolds is credited with transforming the Putnam High School program into an award-winning enterprise that graduates students who are career-ready and focused on their next steps to succeed in the vast culinary arts field. 

Putnam County High School is a four-time winner of the Georgia Department of Education School Nutrition Program Student Chef Competition, with students guided by Reynolds gaining first place honors in 2017, 2018, 2019 and in the 2021 staging.

“I saw the potential to transform the program into an outlet for career, employment and success. Now my students leave school ServSafe certified and every one of them who wants to work are doing so” Reynolds said, as explained the pride she holds for her work with students in Putnam County. She further stated that this year’s virtual set-up of the Fueling Georgia’s Future Student Chef Competition lit a new fire in her resolve to pivot and make things work, having witnessed first-hand how the initiative’s outcome, along with her ongoing efforts have the potential to change the trajectory of her students’ lives. 

For Putnam high school senior, Markeria Solomon (right), being part of this year’s winning team has provided access to $12,000 in scholarship funds to the coveted Sullivan University where she intends to pursue the career of her dreams. Reynolds recounts an exchange between Markeria and her father as a moment of special fulfillment. Mr. Solomon, upon learning of his daughter’s scholarship award, said with tears in his eyes “Markeria, you are going… you are going to college.” Simple words, but a major shift for this family from Eatonton, Georgia.  

Xochitl De La Cruz (left) who Reynolds described as very driven, eager to learn and excited about nutrition and food science, completed the winning duo. A sophomore at the same Putnam High, Xochitl was excited to receive this year’s top prize, it being her foray into what her Culinary Arts teacher believes will be a winning streak in future competitions. Reynolds mused that prior to this, De la Cruz shared having won awards for perfect attendance.

Speaking to the integration of the Putnam High School Culinary Arts program with their district’s School Nutrition Program, Reynolds cites a deep and continuing collaboration with their Director, Tina Kerr. The winning high school recipe from this year’s Student Chef Competition, Putnam High’s Pork Taco, has already appeared on their school lunch menus, much to the delight of the winning team and their peers. In addition, five students from Reynolds’ culinary class have been co-opted to work in their district’s summer School Nutrition operations. 

Asked about her recipe for success, having the highest number of winning teams in the State Student Chef Competition and students being highly sought after for career and tertiary placement, Reynolds said she started with the end in mind.

“I told the board to give me two years to get Putnam on the map with state skills champions, and we did it! My teaching goal is to have these kids employable and with enough scholarship dollars and personal growth to be able to succeed at a post-secondary school. I now have employers calling me daily wanting to offer great opportunities to our graduating students and there are just more offers right now than we have kids available.”

Looking to the future, Ms. Reynolds says she is eager to welcome students back to the classroom and kitchen in the new school year and with sights set on the 2022 Fueling Georgia’s Future Student Chef Competition title, she remains committed to guiding students from Putnam County into more winning ways. 

Held annually since 2017, the Fueling Georgia’s Future Student Chef Competition is administered by the Georgia Department of Education School Nutrition Program as a vehicle to encourage students to engage with School Nutrition Professionals and learn about the process of planning for, sourcing, and preparing school meals. Students benefit from the opportunity to demonstrate their culinary skills while gaining invaluable knowledge in recipe development, food preparation, teamwork, and local food systems. Learn more about Student Chef by visiting our webpage.