By Belen Edwards
The giant fork and spoon in the corner of Senior Assistant Director of Dining and Operations Deb Kekelik’s office have followed her throughout her career. They encompass her passion for working in food service while also serving as fun props from her time spent in educational positions.
Kekelik began her career in food service and education as a registered dietitian. She worked in a clinical capacity teaching nutrition and diet therapy to patients after they underwent surgery. Soon, her focus shifted to preventative care and she became involved with the outpatient services which included weight management counseling and well-being programs.
After working in the clinical sphere, Kekelik took a grant position to serve as a dietitian in a K-12 school district in Indiana. Within a year, she became the director of the program and contracted medical, nutritional, and mental health services for students and developed wellness programs to address the health disparities within the school district.
Kekelik got her teaching license and taught for the next five years. “I was always interested in education and helping people learn about nutrition,” she said. “I quickly missed developing programs, so I went back to earn my Principal License so I could take on a leadership role as a school administrator.”
From there, Kekelik began focusing on the impact of school lunches and food service in an educational setting, laying the groundwork for her work at UChicago. She became more involved with food service operations and started assisting with school nutrition. Student voices were especially important to her, as she ran focus groups to get student input about meals. “I wanted to help students have a voice and give them the opportunity to contribute to their own program,” said Kekelik.
This was a turning point for Kekelik. “I truly enjoyed working with food service operations in an academic setting and realized the value of my background as a dietitian. This is when I began working with a contract management company as a Food Service Director, working within multiple school nutrition programs in the Midwest,” she said.
Although she continues to be with the School Nutrition Association, Kekelik transitioned from K-12 to the university setting. “It’s different than K-12, but many of the same processes apply – developing program logistics, analyzing data and engaging with students and stakeholders,” she said.
Now, at the University of Chicago, Kekelik works with Bon Appétit to make sure that UChicago’s dining program is following the University’s high standards and meeting expectations. Kekelik also works with students with dietary or allergy concerns, consulting with the student, Resident Dietitian Christine Cliff, and Executive Chef Ken Dixon to make sure they have a positive dining hall experience.
Staying within the realm of nutrition, Kekelik is currently as a preceptor to the students in the UChicago Ingalls Memorial Dietetic Internship, a program in which Kekelik herself participated in Harvey, Illinois, which requires studying nutrition and food management. “Typically, I’ll tell them about the different projects I’m involved with so they have an idea of what registered dietitians can do from a food operation standpoint,” she said. “It’s exciting to give them that real world insight of what’s possible.”
And of course, Kekelik works with students who are interested in incorporating the dining commons into their own programs. For example, Kekelik mentored and supported the Grill Club RSO as they set up their grill-off over Homecoming Weekend. The grill-off was a massive endeavor, involving chefs from all three dining commons working with teams of students.
“Student involvement is the part of my job that energizes me the most,” said Kekelik. “Having the opportunity to guide students and give them resources to develop something so they can learn and grow – it’s always exciting.”