Patricia l. Fitzgerald 0000-00-00 00:00:00
<b>Equipment availability plays an important role in your menu decisions.</b> <b>THE HEADLINE for this article might be a wee bit simplistic as an example, but I hope you will grant some literary license for my attempt to summarize (in a single sentence) an important—and sometimes frustrating—conundrum that affects school meal programs. Menu decisions in K-12 school nutrition operations are, to a significant degree, dictated by the preparation and service equipment you have available.</b> The menus you offer your student customers are influenced by a variety of factors— budget and labor among them. Then, there is the equipment factor, which is its own category of influence and impact, as well as one that is inextricably tied to budget and labor issues. Parents, advocates, members of the media, legislators, teachers and even the kids themselves can clamor all they want for school nutrition offerings to evolve to scratch-prepared, home/restaurant-style meals—and you can share that vision—but if you don’t have (or don’t have room for) the equipment you need to put those meals together, then it might just be an impossible dream. Although there has been no recent national research on the average age of school buildings— or school kitchens—it’s a fair guess that just about every school district in the nation has at least one building that has been trying to make do with insufficient space and outdated equipment. And when operational efficiencies require you to make district-wide plans (like menuing and food procurement) based on the capabilities of the least-capable site, then that can be very restrictive across the entire district. Indeed, it’s nothing short of amazing how so many school nutrition operations do find creative strategies to overcome such production handicaps in order to provide students with choices, quality and nutrition every day So, what can be done to change things? The first step is to build awareness of the problem. When responding to the stakeholders in your community who demand menu change, the dialogue <i>must</i> include a discussion about equipment. This is a pragmatic point that can be overlooked in the debate about locally sourced goods and the cost of menu items and ingredients. People without a foodservice background simply have no appreciation for what’s involved in replicating the meal they serve to their family of four to a meal that must be served to hundreds (and even thousands) of customers within a two-hour window. Even local restaurants don’t have to produce this kind of volume—and John & Jane Q. Public haven’t a clue about what’s involved in making it happen. To build this awareness within your community, you certainly need to be able to cite the equipment restrictions of your own individual school and/or district. But it’s also helpful to have an appreciation for a bigger picture. How does this relationship between menu and equipment manifest itself in districts across the country? And what priorities are school nutrition directors setting when they have the opportunity to upgrade equipment? How do their menu ambitions influence those priorities? Let’s take a look. <b>Capital Gains</b> Last spring, The Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project, a joint initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, partnered with SNA’s School Nutrition Foundation (SNF) to conduct a pilot survey on equipment and training needs in schools. The intent of the project was to explore the type of equipment and training necessary for schools to meet the (then-proposed) nutrition regulation standards for the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs. School nutrition directors from three states (Georgia, Kentucky and Wisconsin) were selected to respond. While this was just a <i>pilot</i> survey, intended to help the feasibility of a representative national study, the results are still informative. In general, the vast majority of respondents indicated that they lack adequate funds to repair and/or purchase the kitchen equipment needed to prepare and serve healthier meals that meet the proposed standards. The expected costs of updating kitchen equipment for this goal varied, with a median estimate of $52,500 per school district. (In addition to general equipment questions, the researchers asked respondents about use of deep-fat fryers and salad bars.) The survey was conducted soon after the federal government offered schools grant money to purchase new equipment through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Many districts across the country took advantage of this opportunity, and the survey captured the highlights in the three targeted states. ■ In Georgia, five out of eight respondents reported that their districts had received federal funds to purchase foodservice equipment. This included “ovens that allowed foodservice workers to bake more and fry less; freezer/cooler combinations that improved storage quality; and additional serving lines that kept food warmer and improved the presentation of fruits and vegetables.” ■ In Kentucky, 5 of 13 districts had received federal funds and purchased “a convection oven that allowed staff to bake more and deep fry less; milk coolers; walk-in freezers; warming cabinets; dishwashers and combi ovens.” ■ In Wisconsin, 12 of the 45 responding districts received funds to purchase “dishwashers, convection ovens, milk coolers, warming tables that allowed for multiple serving lines and walk-in coolers for storing fresh produce.” The responding directors in all three states affirmed that the installation of new equipment and changing food prep methods increased costs. But they also noted that it resulted in: ■ greater efficiency in meal preparation; ■ improved meal quality; ■ increased student satisfaction; and ■ increased morale among foodservice workers <i>School Nutrition</i> asked some of its readers to cite the equipment that they purchased with federal grant money. The list included some conventional items— serving lines, ovens and milk coolers were among cited purchases. But some directors put the money toward some less-expected uses. For example, Tim Goossens, foodservice director, Laconia (N.H.) School District, reports that his operation received approximately $25,000, which his team used to purchase a new van to deliver meals to satellite locations. <b>Not Your Mama’s Oven</b> Some things don’t change in K-12 operations. Go back through the archives of this magazine, and you will find that many of today’s hot topics are just coming back into vogue, having dominated attention 10, 20, 30 or more years ago. But one thing that has changed over the years is technology. You don’t need us to enumerate the many ways the tech revolution has transformed society. But <i>School Nutrition</i> asked about how changes in equipment technology and availability have affected what operations prep and serve for school meals. Changes in oven and holding equipment (as well as in product formulations) have helped schools to eliminate fryers without sacrificing some of the product types their customers hold dear. “The biggest transition has been doing away with flash frying and using efficient convection ovens to make volumes of baked foods to reduce fats,” says Maureen Pisanick, foodservice director, Hudson City (Ohio) Schools. Directors also cited the introduction of combi ovens, high-tech holding cabinets and rethermalization units as vital “to allow us to provide top-quality products to our students,” says Dawn Houser, SNS, director of nutrition services, Collier County (Fla.) Public Schools. Laconia’s Tim Goossens agrees, “Items that could not be prepared well in traditional equipment are well suited to combi ovens and other new technology. And better hot and cold holding equipment also has allowed us to serve a better end product.” Indeed, combi ovens earned the most mentions for landmark school nutrition equipment technology in <i>School Nutrition’s</i> informal research. Willie Gentry, SNS, foodservice director for Peoria (Ariz.) Unified District, says that more budget money would mean the purchase of more combi ovens for her operation. Sara Gasiorowski, SNS, foodservice director, MSD of Wayne Township, Indianapolis, Ind., agrees, adding, “I like the flexibility of using one unit to cook in three different modes—dry, steam, combi.” She’s also become a fan of rotating ovens, as “They do a great job on baking.” Jon Dickl, MBA, SNS, school nutrition director, Knoxville (Tenn.) County Schools, gives a shout-out to new technology being applied to serving lines. “There are a few companies that are producing serving line units that combine hot/cold capabilities and, in doing so, provide an opportunity to expand menu selections without being restricted by the number of hot or cold wells available on one’s serving line,” he explains. Similarly, “the methods of displaying food have improved by the inclusion of hot/cold combination countertops.” <b>Whaddya Want?</b> Respondents to the The Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project survey were asked to identify the specific equipment they most needed to help them meet the new federal nutrition standards. Operators offered up just about everything on the market— including the kitchen sink! Wish lists included ■ sinks for washing fruits and vegetables; ■ ovens, steamers, warmers; ■ blast chillers, freezers, coolers; ■ fruit/vegetable slicers; ■ preparation tools; ■ serving line renovations; ■ salad bars; and ■ cold tables. Without specifically referencing the new meal regulations, <i>School Nutrition</i> asked operators to identify equipment they would buy if they had more capital funds available. In the large, metropolitan district of MSD of Wayne Township, Sara Gasiorowski would like to spend equipment dollars on renovating her serving lines to improve line speed, improve the merchandising of food items and decrease theft. Meanwhile, it’s probably not surprising to learn that in Florida’s Collier County, Dawn Houser would prioritize the purchase of walk-in coolers and freezers. And if you apply that logic, does it mean that a district in Alaska would be jonesing for ovens? Well, perhaps not for such superficial reasons, but Dean Hamburg, SNS, student nutrition services administrator, Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, does lament the state of ovens in many of his school kitchens: “Some of our ovens have perpetually loose doors, plus weak/cold spots inside that make baking difficult. And we know that [many] are energy-inefficient.” Hamburg also wants to replace dishwashing units—“a deserved product for our busy kitchens.” <b>One Site at a Time</b> “Kitchen Open or Kitchen Closed?” <i>(beginning on page 42)</i> explores the differing strategies that compel some directors to centralize school meal production and others to move away from satelliting meals. <i>School Nutrition</i> asked the operators interviewed for this piece if they find it more important to make an equipment investment at the serving site level or at a central facility (either a full-production kitchen or a larger school site). Most indicated a desire to focus on the individual serving site. Knoxville’s Jon Dickl articulates it best: “In an effort to improve food quality, I have a strong desire to make more kitchens independent.” Dean Hamburg also prioritizes equipment support at the serving site over a centralized location for very pragmatic reasons. In his district, 34 meal site locations are spread out over <i>28,000 square miles!</i> “Our school district is the size of West Virginia,” he points out. “Rural Alaska, in general, has many, many schools not even connected to a road system, so, central kitchen strategies are not at all doable.” And it’s that same pragmatism that drives very basic equipment needs, rather than menu ambitions doing so. “Local site functionality with proper equipment is the priority,” he notes, explaining that school kitchens play an important role in the life of the community, especially in times of emergency. (Hamburg’s equipment priorities also include such unique specifications as “bear-proof kitchen doorways and school trash storage areas.” After all, he notes, “Bear or moose entry into school kitchens can cause disruption in meal service. Any equipment support that can limit the access of large, undomesticated mammals from entry into school kitchens is a priority.”) Hudson’s Maureen Pisanick doesn’t think purely in terms of “central versus site,” when she contemplates her equipment priorities. She aims to focus on “replacing equipment at our largest/ busiest sites to ensure efficient production and make the most significant impact to the largest population.” In addition, she calculates the age or amount of repairs a unit has had and takes that into consideration, keeping track with a preventive maintenance schedule and setting an equipment replacement forecast. <i>(See “’Tis Better to Spare a Care Than to Despair and Repair,” page 54, for more about the value of preventive maintenance scheduling and tracking.)</i> <b>What’s Cooking?</b> One area where menu and equipment go hand-in-hand is in new product and packaging development. Food manufacturers are becoming increasingly inventive in their understanding of how to ensure their products maximize the opportunities presented by current equipment technology. <i>School Nutrition</i> asked directors to cite changes in the development of food items—and their packaging—that influence their equipment decisions. The first thing that comes to mind for Pisanick is the many products that have been specifically developed to go from oven to serving line. “This does increase the unit cost at times, but when I’m looking at factors such as controlling labor costs and feeding masses with limited time, especially at breakfast, plus the general market appeal of such products to students, I’m giving them a go,” she explains. “A good example would be our use of breakfast items like pancakes and waffles that can be heated and served in their packaging.” Sara Gasiorowski also cites prewrapped breakfast items, while Dawn Houser is a fan of wrapped sandwiches, saying that they do “exceptionally well” in rethermalization equipment. Both Willie Gentry and Jon Dickl reference the influence of precooked items. “The use of more items that are fully cooked has resulted in minimizing the dependence on equipment like tilt skillets that are necessary for the production of raw proteins,” explains Dickl. <b>Scratch That?</b> Other thoughts about the links between menu and equipment in K-12 school nutrition operations? “I would like to offer more items that are less-processed, but I am concerned about receiving and storage capabilities, cross-contamination and getting heated foods to safe storage temperatures in a timely manner,” says Jon Dickl. Dawn Houser agrees. “I know that there has been a huge push to get away from processed foods and go back to scratch cooking,” she acknowledges. “However, I am not willing to deal with the potential food safety issues [related to that preparation]. I also think that consistency is an issue with scratch cooking.” Batch cooking is a critical aspect of scratch preparation, and while Houser emphasizes that approach with her team, “With one lunch period in all of our high schools, sometimes that’s a luxury we cannot afford. The next best thing is to make the financial investment in the best holding cabinets on the market, so you are utilizing moist heat and maintaining the integrity of the product. We have seen a huge impact on the quality of the food since we purchased new cabinets.” <b>Puzzle Pieces</b> <i>School Nutrition’s</i> interviews illustrate the difficulty directors have in drawing distinctions in the complex relationship between equipment and the menu—and the school nutrition operation. After all, <i>everything</i> the school nutrition team does comes down to serving kids high-quality menu items. So, when it comes to equipment, most directors are looking as much at options that will improve how they get the meals into the kids’ hands as they are at options that will allow them to serve a particular product category. Still, most <i>do</i> recognize that the menu is a powerful factor. “The coming years will be interesting for us, as we begin to implement the new meal pattern and how that will impact the changes we continue to make in our menus—and how that will affect future equipment purchases,” remarks Sara Gasiorowski. “We may need to pull some of those mixers out of storage!” Let’s give Maureen Pisanick the last word. “Predicting the menu cycle is very helpful in predicting and managing equipment needs,” she notes. “We have been looking at the menu mix for popularity and cost efficiencies. When [we factor in] production capacity, we are modifying our cycle menu to achieve the best results. Equipment is surely a piece to the puzzle that is integral to making a successful operation even better!” <b>Patricia Fitzgerald</b> <i>is editor of School Nutrition. Photography by</i> <b>©Solarseven, Dundanim, Nytumbleweeds, Andres Rodriguez, Basem F Abdel Maseeh, Yuri Arcurs, Raycan/Dreamstime.com.</b> <b>Finding the Funds</b> In 2009, Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) funded $125 million for school kitchen equipment through the 2009 Equipment Assistance Grants for School Food Authorities program, made available as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. From the beginning of the National School Lunch Program in 1946, the government periodically made substantial short-term investments available to schools for kitchen equipment, cites a USDA report. However, it had been 25 years since the last such funding opportunity. And the need for such assistance is clear. The $125 million was just a drop in the bucket, considering that USDA received applications totaling <i>$600 million!</i> Since 2007, Winston Industries has partnered with SNA’s School Nutrition Foundation to offer the Winston Industries Equipment Award Grant, which provides a deserving district with multiple pieces of equipment, including holding cabinets and drawers and steamers. This year, more than 100 applications for the grant were received. At press time, the 2011 winner had not yet been named. Dean Hamburg, SNS, student nutrition services administrator for Kenai Peninsula (Alaska) Borough School District, articulates the frustration many directors experience in trying to equip their kitchens solely from their own budgets. He notes that the federal and state governments provide equipment-related subsidies for many other industries, from highway maintenance to air travel. “It would be nice to have similar state and federal support for school meal programs. We work to provide complete meals to kids with a per-meal financial support that is equal to a cup of coffee.” <b>BONUS WEB CONTENT</b> Mission: Readiness is a nonprofit, nonpartisan national security organization led by more than 250 retired generals, admirals and other senior military leaders who are calling for smart investments in the next generation of American children, including increased access to healthier school meals. Read some of the thoughts leaders of this group have about the link between equipment and the school menu online at SchoolNutrition.org. Visit www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinecurrent to access this web-exclusive feature.
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