Improved Schools Kitchens for Improved School Food

  • Policy & Advocacy
  • September 10, 2013
  • Comments

As Labor Day weekend recedes, many school districts have been open for a month or more, and 2013-14 continues to serve up challenges for food service directors.  Last year’s efforts to comply with new USDA guidelines highlight an increased need for equipment and infrastructure updates.

The changes in USDA standards profoundly impacted food service teams who have been tapped to simultaneously teach students about the important role that vegetables and fruits play in nutrition and to please them with delicious meals. This year, schools are charged with serving healthier snacks, and districts are also evaluating how to serve a required fruit and vegetable component at breakfast for 2014-15. To increase a district’s capacity to prepare more fresh foods, three major needs must be addressed:

1.  Equipment to store, cook, transport and serve a variety of foods,
2.  The infrastructure to support the equipment.
3.  Staff training to implement new menus

In addition to necessary “behind the line” equipment improvements, “cafetoriums” are being recognized as less than ideal environments in which to feed children. Improving the flavor of meals also means considering the environments in which the meals are served. 

Strategies for Change: How can food service directors educate their school boards, district administrators and parent community on the educational value that updated kitchens and dining areas can produce?

1.  Be informed and know your baseline ‒ The food service department should have details of their current food production, service, and storage spaces including construction/remodel dates, square footage, equipment type, manufacturer, age and record of repair. 

2.  Be strategic –  Identify your needs as immediate, long term or “wish list.” What is your operational model? What improvements are essential to meet your standards of practice?  What are your short term and long term goals?  What training will your team require to work in an updated production and service environment?

3.  Lean in – Is your department part of the decision-making process? Make sure that the food service department is “at the table” for all construction and remodeling in the district to ensure that your infrastructure needs are taken into account.

4.  Know your specs – Does your department have up-to-date food service construction specifications for the various site types in the district’s construction/bond/facilities office? Be certain the specifications meet your department’s operational model with the efficiencies your team needs to succeed.

5.  Own your space – Too often the spaces where students eat and the accompanying service areas are grossly inadequate, unattractive, noisy and often not a “dining” space at all. Dining rooms should be age-appropriate spaces designed for noise-reduction, flow, and seating. The space may still be multi-use for studying or afterschool activities, but its primary use should be dedicated to offering students a great meal-time experience.

6.  Update and replace ‒ Equipment and infrastructure are not “get it and forget it” propositions. Many food service departments must “lobby” the administration for additional funds on an ad hoc basis.  Can you negotiate lower or no indirect fund charges to help keep a replacement plan and budget on track?  Are there capital reserve funds that food service can access? What other funding strategies are available for one-time initiatives like building a central production facility? Explore bonds, grants, gifts, and regional foundations that fund brick and mortar projects.

7.  Talk it up ‒ Be prepared to explain why your department’s equipment and infrastructure needs are important. Shape your message to appeal to different audiences: parents, funders, administrators, and the broader community. Childhood nutritional health is at the forefront of national media attention. Your department pl

Better childhood nutrition doesn’t just mean better school food. We all know what we want to serve our students. The real work is determining how.

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