It’s Time to Modernize School Kitchens

Enhancing efficiency through technology

  • School Food Operations
  • August 10, 2016
  • By: Ann Cooper
  • Comments

Schools all across the country are gearing up for another school year and many of them will be cooking more items from scratch than ever before.  One of the great success stories of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act is that more fresh food is served in schools, which means more cutting, chopping, prepping and cooking.  The result is more healthy and delicious food for our kids. A consequence is that schools are now needing to build, remodel or retrofit their kitchens to meet the demands of scratch cooking.

When we talk about school food change, we often describe it in terms of the five most important areas that need to be addressed: food, finance, facilities, human resources and marketing.  Proper facilities, and especially appropriate cooking equipment, is a must for successful scratch cook implementation.  The need for equipment was highlighted in a Pew Research Report; the key findings:

  • Finding 1: The vast majority of school food authorities (88%) needed one or more pieces of equipment to help them meet the current lunch standards. Of those that reported having inadequate equipment, more than 85% are “making do” with a less efficient process or workaround. 
  • Finding 2: Only 42% of school food authorities reported having a budget to purchase capital equipment, and less than half expected the budget to be adequate to meet their equipment needs. 
  • Finding 3: More than half of all school food authorities (55%) need kitchen infrastructure changes at one or more schools to meet the lunch requirements.

How Equipment Purchases Enhance Efficiency

I have experienced this firsthand at my own school district. In Boulder Valley, one of the most popular items on our menu is the oven fried chicken. It’s a universally loved recipe that uses local, antibiotic free, bone-in chicken thighs and legs. It’s certainly a far cry from frozen chicken nuggets - instead of re-heating a package of pre-made chicken bites, we are preparing, breading and roasting every single piece of chicken for our 52 school sites. Before I invested in 3 automatic breading machines, I had my staff doing it by hand. It would take 12 kitchen staff 6 hours each to accomplish this task, and as our most popular lunch item, we were serving it every other week. That’s 72 hours just to bread chicken! Now, it only takes 24 hours to operate the machines, and the remaining 48 labor hours can be “spent” on increasing the quality of our food.

​When you get to this level of scratch cooking, it’s imperative that you start looking at ways in which technology and equipment can help you become more efficient. The types of equipment that enhance efficiency include walk-in refrigerators, walk-in freezers, convection ovens, steamers, combi-ovens, tilt skillets, steam kettles, blast-chillers, sous-vide tanks, chill tanks, breading machines, vertical mixers and horizontal mixers.  But which equipment to buy, how much space you need, the utilities that will be needed, and how to pay for it all needs to be addressed up-front.

In 2015 the USDA attempted to address the issue by allocating $35 million for equipment grants in an effort to help schools and districts upgrade their kitchen infrastructure.  Although this funding adds to the $150 million that had already been granted in the past few years, it is significantly less than what will be needed to bring all of our nation’s food service operations up-to-date.

Where to Start

With the majority of America’s school districts working toward healthier food and many toward scratch cooking, we are often asked where to start.  Our answer is always with recipes and menus.  You can’t begin to understand what equipment you’ll need until you know what you want to serve. It all starts with the menu!  Another important factor to consider is the type of production that you have.  Are you cooking in every school?  Do you have regionalized or centralized production?  The decisions that you make around menus and production will help you choose:

  1. The types and quantities of equipment you’ll need, 
  2. The size and skill sets of your staff, and
  3. The size of the kitchen itself, given the school or district's average daily participation.

The facilities section of The Lunch Box delves into these issues and supplies the information that you’ll need to begin the process of upgrading, building or transitioning your operation from “heat and serve” to scratch cooking.

With so much information to understand and so many decisions to make, this process may seem overwhelming, but it can and must be done. Our suggestion is truly to begin with the menu, spec the type and size of equipment you need, implement a budget, write an RFP for the equipment, and once you’re all set, train your staff to make the best possible food. The Lunch Box resources will assist you throughout the process, and so will we. It’s time to get cooking!


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