Penny Mclaren 0000-00-00 00:00:00
<b>Is there a future for school nutrition central production facilities? In one school district, there’s a brand-new central production facility with gleaming new ovens and energy-efficient refrigerators. In another, there’s a central production facility with well-worn equipment that has lived past its usefulness. One site is ready to open; one is ready to close. When it comes to centralizing the production of school meals, can such contrasting approaches be equally successful? What part does the investment in equipment play in production decisions? School Nutrition set out to explore this issue by checking in with a few representative school districts.</b> <b>OPENING</b> In California, school nutrition operations have the opportunity to procure a wide variety of fresh and local fruits and vegetables—items that everyone wants to see more of on school menus. But in Palm Springs Unified School District (USD), many of the school kitchens simply aren’t equipped to prep these items for service. “We faced what most school districts face in California, and that is aging kitchens in the schools,” reports Wanda Grant, RD, SNS, nutrition services director. Today, a new central processing facility that is part of a larger new service center helps to overcome the food prep limitations faced in the district’s 16 elementary schools, five middle schools and three high schools. The goal, says Grant, is simple: Better meals for students. In particular, the new facility should help her and her team put more fruits and vegetables on students’ plates. Were the aging facilities <i>that</i> problematic? Size was a significant issue, Grant details. School kitchens were so small, without adequate prep space and sinks, that attempting to prepare such children’s favorites as watermelon or celery might have compromised both quality and food safety standards. That meant purchasing produce items pre-sliced and diced— certainly a more costly alternative. Entrée opportunities also suffered. “Ovens are a limiting factor. We don’t have enough ovens for the entrées,” says Grant, explaining, “Kitchens were built to serve 300 to 400 students, but now they are serving 600 students.” And when many sites don’t even have warming items, district menus must be planned based on the capabilities of the most limited kitchen. Bringing all the school kitchens up to the standards that would allow the kind of menu transformation Grant envisioned would have meant spending a lot of money at each school site—as much as $3 million at each school; and that would just upgrade the kitchens, not build entirely new schools! It doesn’t take a mathematical genius to add up the dollars and find the sense. Palm Springs USD got a bargain with a new central kitchen that cost “many millions less,” says Grant. She cites other, corollary advantages to launching a central production site, not the least of which relates to homeland security. “We want to make sure the food is as safe as possible,” explains Grant. “We have more security in receiving in this facility.” Grant also points to the industrial level equipment the new facility features—even just to move ingredients. “Fruits and vegetables weigh a lot,” she notes. At individual sites, simply to wash and cut oranges, the fruit has to be lifted and moved from the dock to refrigeration to the prep table and so on. It means moving 300 pounds of oranges approximately eight times, estimates Grant. “Foodservice employees are the strongest staff members I know, but that is a <i>lot</i> of work!” In the central facility, oranges are delivered on a pallet and are only moved four times—not only saving on potential injuries, but saving time, which saves money. Among other equipment, the new facility features large, commercial-grade baking ovens, a pizza oven, kettles and an innovative new produce-washing system. (According to Grant, her staff is most excited about using the new produce washer.) She believes that the large-quantity equipment will allow her team to move away from purchasing as many processed foods and offer more scratch-prepared items. One of the fi rst new items on the agenda: fresh-baked breads and rolls. Also, Grant’s team recently launched breakfast in the classroom service, and she expects that the central production facility will help them to provide a greater variety of breakfast items—including rice bowls and hard-cooked eggs—than what could be prepped solely at individual sites, especially when school nutrition staff must begin lunch preparation early in the morning. Not all of the equipment changes are found in the central facility. Grant has invested in equipment changes at some individual school kitchens, too. This includes walk-in refrigeration. And she readily admits that the most ideal situation would be to renovate each site for onsite scratch production. “If I could put scratch cooking in every one of my schools, I would,” asserts Grant. But “That is not in the cards.” <b>CLOSING</b> Across the country, Arlington (Va.) Public Schools is nearly the same size as Palm Springs USD, with 22 elementary schools, five middle and three high schools. But its school nutrition operation has opted to move to the other end of the central kitchen spectrum. By the end of the current school year, its central production facility will close. Three years ago, Amy Maclosky, director of food and nutrition services, initiated a phased-in plan to convert Arlington’s elementary school kitchens to scratch production. Today, just six more schools remain on the list to receive the equipment changeover; those sites should be converted by June. When she started at the district as its new director, Maclosky immediately had concerns about the way that the meals prepared at the central facility and satellited to schools were presented: covered with foil. It might have been the right solution to keep food at the proper temperatures, but “The kids couldn’t even see the food,” she explains. “I wanted to cook in the schools. Now students can smell the food, they can see the food and they can make their own selections.” Transitioning the closure of the central kitchen over three years made the plan easier for staff to accept. “You don’t want the conversion to take forever,” notes Maclosky of the timing, “but you don’t want to overwhelm the staff.” The gradual approach also allowed Maclosky to avoid employee layoffs, moving team members from the central facility to individual school sites—and easing a lot of staff anxiety. The conversion required equipment purchases at each school site, but not necessarily the same equipment for each. Overall, for schools to have the capability to prep meals meant that sites needed refrigeration, ovens, serving lines and warmers. Some schools already had serving lines, others did not. Some had reach-in refrigerators that were adequate, others needed an upgrade. “It was different in each school,” reports Maclosky. “As we phase out the central kitchen, some of the equipment has been moved to the schools,” she explains. For example, the larger ovens could be used in the district’s high schools. However, she is still unsure if some of the remaining equipment can be used in another way, or will be sold whole or for parts. After all, a conveyor belt that moves meals along a production line has no new home in the district and is destined for sale. But the walk-in refrigerator and freezer will stay where they are for centralized storage. Maclosky says that, over time, she plans to add equipment, like kettles, at each site to enable the production of even more items from scratch. And while some onsite equipment are new additions, others have been jettisoned; for example, the griddles and deep-fat fryers once used in the high schools already have been pulled out to make way for the new equipment—and new menu items. Maclosky is confident that the approach is the right one for Arlington: “Participation increased almost immediately in converted schools, which is a good thing.” <b>OPENED</b> When Dora Rivas, MS, RD, SNS, executive director of food and child nutrition services for Dallas Independent School District (ISD), and an SNA past president, decided to open a new, large, production kitchen, she did so with a very specific vision in mind. The new facility focuses on food production not for all 229 schools in the district, but to support the schools that required satellite meals. The central facility specifically concentrates on the production of various sauces used for meals. “That way we can control the ingredients better and develop the flavorprofile at a lower cost,” says Rivas. Spaghetti, Alfredo and taco sauces are made from scratch at the central site, cooked in large kettles and then bagged. The bags are tied and labeled and sent to a blast freezer for storage until needed. More recently, the school nutrition operation added more capability to assemble meals at this central location. For example, this school year has seen the acquisition of a heat sealer that allows staff to process canned commodity fruits and vegetables. Such additions “allow us to be more flexible in school labor with the amount of time we have available,” notes Dallas ISD Executive Chef Brad Trudeau, SNS. It also reduces the amount of inventory held at schools where space is at a premium. If you’re a small site and only need a few portions of a certain item, then opening a #10 can means finding a way to use it all or finding a way to store it until the menu item comes around the cycle again, he explains. In the spring, the department expects to acquire an overwrap machine that will allow for improved packaging of breakfast items that are served at the satellite schools. Already the central site assembles at least half of the breakfast items served throughout the district. “There are breakfast items [we serve] that are not prepared by any vendor,” reports Rivas. “We can offer these through the breakfast in the classroom program—and we save labor costs at the schools.” Dallas ISD procures most of its menu items and ingredients in a processed form, so even at the central production kitchen, the work is mostly about meal “assembly.” Rivas believes that getting meats in a minimally processed form, such as beef crumbles, is a strategy that minimizes food safety risks. Providing a store of emergency food is another function of the central facility. The school nutrition team in Dallas has long experience with weather-related or other unexpected power outages. Now, when disaster strikes, prepackaged foods can be sent to schools on short notice. <b>CLOSED</b> In 1983, Portland (Ore.) Public Schools opened the first central cook-chill production kitchen in a school district in the country. So, it was another historic event six years ago when Gitta Grether-Sweeney, MS, RD, now director of Portland’s Nutrition Services department, along with her now-retired predecessor Kristi Obbink, together took the first steps to shut down that operation. The meal-processing facility had been located within the district administration building, a structure that happened to be sited on very valuable land in the city. For a long time, there has been talk that the school district might sell the building, to allow the property to be redeveloped. But the cook-chill production kitchen was a major sticking point hindering such a sale, as it would be very difficult to relocate this operation. That was until Nutrition Services took the proactive step to develop a plan that would close the central kitchen and transition most meal preparation to individual school sites. Today, the building continues to be used by the school district for central administration. But the cook-chill operation is gone, replaced by a central commissary, with the primary role of receiving, storing and distributing inventory for the school meal program. “We have old schools that cannot hold a week’s worth of groceries,” explains Grether-Sweeney. Sale of the property continues to be under consideration—just this year, a new buyer expressed interest. Should an agreement be reached, moving the Nutrition Services commissary—along with the rest of the staff—would be a doable task. In the meantime, the central facility continues to do some meal assembly, particularly of breakfast items, such as a breakfast taco, yogurt parfait with graham crackers, breakfast boat, breakfast sausage biscuit and an egg-and-cheese boat. “Because we offer breakfast in the classroom,” Grether-Sweeney says, “there is no way that staff could get to the school early enough to make the breakfast at each site, with 950 kids in the hall looking for a grab ‘n’ go breakfast.” Another reason for assembling certain breakfast items at a central location is that many of these simply are not available from manufacturers in a form the district wants to use. For example, experience proved that a prepackaged breakfast boat didn’t heat well. In addition, Portland’s school nutrition team wanted to serve more protein than a particular commercial alternative offered. But “As we find more of these items on the open market, we will probably buy them already assembled,” notes Grether-Sweeney. To make the transition to increased meal preparation at individual school sites, the Nutrition Services department has been purchasing additional freezers, refrigerators and ovens over a number of years. Grether-Sweeney asserts that much of this equipment would have had to be purchased anyway, regardless of the decision to close the cook-chill facility, through a natural equipment replacement schedule. In the meantime, most of the large-scale equipment in the central kitchen, including ovens and steam kettles, was sold, since it could not be adapted to use at the smaller sites; one food supplier purchased the kettles. Despite such major changes, the menu has remained essentially the same, and “We had no complaints on the change,” insists Grether-Sweeney. “In fact, participation went up. The quality improved.” Huh? Does she mean a commercial product can be <i>better</i> than a scratchprepped one? Absolutely. In particular, she cites a vast improvement in the macaroni-and-cheese now offered. “The Land O’ Lakes product we get is so much better than what we made,” Grether- Sweeney asserts. “What we made would not hold up, and it was not good. What we needed was someone with a food science background to manage and develop the volume recipes for us. We couldn’t do it.” As for staffing, a few employees, specifically managers, were laid off in the transition. And those who were used to working eight-hour shifts at the central kitchen had to settle for less-than-six-hour shifts in the schools. The change in Portland was not Grether-Sweeney’s first go at closing a district’s central kitchen. In a previous position in Eames, Texas, she closed a central kitchen. There, Grether-Sweeney felt she had a clear mandate from parents to improve school meals, and meal prep at school sites provided the students with better quality. <b>CLOSED</b> Helen Phillips, SNS, senior director of school nutrition for Norfolk (Va.) Public Schools, and current SNA president, reports that her district was the second in the country to open a cook-chill facility, close on the heels of Portland. And when the news broke that Portland had closed down its central facility, Norfolk staff were anxious that its district would, once again, follow their western counterpart. After all, “Theirs was the facility ours was modeled after,” notes Phillips. Sure enough, as of this school year, the Norfolk cook-chill facility has closed down, under some similar circumstances. It, too, was in a prime location, and the city of Norfolk was considering moving the central kitchen in order to build a grocery store on the land. “A potential move was certainly part of our decision,” Phillips acknowledges. “However, achieving economic efficiencies was the <i>primary</i> reason for our decision.” At the start of the current school year, Phillips and her team officially closed its central kitchen, concluding a process that had been some time in coming. For example, the equipment, now 25 years old, was beginning to fail; Phillips couldn’t justify the cost of replacing pieces, especially as changes in commodity processing over the years meant that manufacturers could better meet their needs. (But more on that in a bit.) Norfolk’s school nutrition team does continue to bake rolls and make signature salads at the central site. The rolls are enormously popular in the district, so there was no sense in turning to a manufacturer’s brand. As for the signature salads, which include an Asian Salad and a Harvest Salad, prepping these at individual serving sites was generating a lot of wasted produce. Now, schools order finished salads from the central kitchen— and salad consumption is slowly rising at all school levels. Overall, not much changed once most central production responsibilities officially ceased, Phillips insists. Through retirements and by moving some employees to schools, the operation has been able to avoid layoffs, while still using less labor. There were no significant menu changes— so no new learning curves for staff and plenty of familiarity for student customers. Phillips attributes this success to the gradual transition over time. At its peak, the central kitchen produced 118 menu items. By the time it closed, staff working there produced just 13 items. The reason? As the government made major changes in allowing manufacturers to take on commodity processing for K-12 schools, the resulting products were of better quality—and would hold longer—than the items produced in Norfolk’s central kitchen. Quality <i>and</i> cost savings were the driving forces behind the decision to get out of the central production business. “Four years ago, we made up a list of every item we made, calculating just the cost of the raw goods,” recounts Phillips. “Every item was a few cents cheaper to buy prepared, considering only the cost of the raw goods and not even taking labor into account! All the products we were making were cheaper to buy commercially. Slowly, over the years, the manufactured products have become better and better. Some companies even will customize their products to meet the needs of our district. It has been good for us.” <b>Where Do the Signs Point? </b> To open? To close? Like so much in the K-12 foodservice segment, there is no single right answer in the central versus site production debate; there’s no approach that fits <i>all</i> districts. Labor, distribution, prices, product availability, size of district (enrollment), size of district (geography), size of budget, program participation, number of serving sites, community pressures, personal philosophies and, of course, equipment—all are factors that must be calculated in a complex decisionmaking matrix. When it comes to centralized production, the bottom line is that school nutrition departments must find the best approach that meets their unique circumstances. <b>Penny McLaren</b> <i>is a freelance writer in Vancouver, Wash., and a former editor of this publication.</i>
Published by School Nutrition Association. View All Articles.
This page can be found at http://mydigimag.rrd.com/article/Kitchen+Open+or+Kitchen+Closed%3F/937405/95372/article.html.