Aging School Kitchens Undermine Healthy Meal Preparation

It was food delivery day at Glen Landing Middle School in Blackwood, New Jersey, and the 42-year-old walk-in freezer went kaput. Again.

“The food delivery we were supposed to receive that Thursday had to be delivered to another school,” says Marge Vallieu, a 22-year district employee, the last 17 as Glen Landing’s cafeteria manager. “The food was then picked up and brought back to me on Monday.”

Fortunately for the 100 students who ate breakfast and 350 who enjoyed lunch at Glen Landing that Thursday and Friday, a maintenance worker kept the freezer running with duct tape, glue and a prayer until he could install much-needed new parts. Vallieu says Glen Landing still has most of the original kitchen equipment from when the school was built in 1971.

“The repairman said the freezer should have been replaced 10 years ago,” says Vallieu, a member of the New Jersey Education Association. “That’s not going to happen unless we hit the lottery.”

According to Serving Healthy School Meals, a new report by the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project (KSHFP), some sort of financial windfall is needed by many schools in order to prepare and serve healthy foods efficiently. For example, only one in 10 school districts surveyed (12 percent) have the kitchen equipment needed to serve nutritious and appealing meals, with only 42 percent having a budget sufficient enough to purchase vital equipment.

To meet current dietary needs, according to the survey, schools need ovens to bake rather than fry foods; refrigerators to hold fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products; and proper infrastructure such as electrical capacity, plumbing, and physical space to prepare and store foods.

“Without the right kitchen equipment, students are likely not being served the best, most appealing foods,” says Maureen Spill, child nutritionist and senior research associate with KSHFP.

In 2011, Alabama Education Association member Donna West was on the task force that helped develop the report’s survey questions. As nutrition program manager at Brownwood Elementary School in Scottsboro, West says her participation with the project gave her greater insight into kitchen operations at schools nationwide.

Brownwood was built in 1961 and has gone through a half dozen renovations, including the kitchen about 15 years ago.

“I am lucky to have good equipment,” says West, whose kitchen crew feeds about 115 students for breakfast and more than 250 for lunch. “But there is never enough money to get everything on my wish list.”

In 2011, the Department of Agriculture proposed updated nutrition standards for school meals to align them with dietary guidelines and children’s nutritional requirements. In compliance with the National School Lunch Program, schools were required to implement updated standards for lunches in the 2012 – 2013 school year that incorporated more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products. More than 31 million students participate in the school lunch program each day, with many consuming up to half of their daily calories at school.

Stainless steel, large-capacity production equipment is located near a clutter-free sink for greater efficiency during the food production process.

While the majority of school districts surveyed (88 percent) need one or more pieces of equipment at a given school or central production facility, more than half (55 percent) need additional storage space, more electrical outlets, the relocation of sinks and drains, exhaust hoods, and other infrastructure changes at one or more schools to meet government requirements.

“Our old serving line did not meet with health department requirements, which state that the line must have cold wells that keep a constant temperature,” Vallieu says. “Also, the hot wells were starting to burn through with age.”

In addition to serving line counters, school districts purchase everything from meal trays ($5), knife sets with cutting boards ($530), and mobile milk coolers ($3,000) to combination oven-steamers ($24,000), refrigerated trucks ($50, 875), and industrial walk-in coolers ($201,000).

At Boulder High School in Colorado, food service manager Mary Shelton-Kelly says her 1950s kitchen needs updating.

“My walk-in refrigerator is tiny compared to the usual high school,” says Shelton-Kelly, the school’s “kitchen satellite lead” and president of the Boulder Valley Classified Employees Association.

Boulder High has approximately 2,000 students and has experienced several renovations to the kitchen and cafeteria, the last one in 2008 when the school won a $100,000 grant.

“We purchased new serving tables that keep food nice and hot, and seating tables painted in school colors for the cafeteria,” she says. “However, seating capacity in the building is still pretty low.” Which means some students may dine in a stairwell, outdoors, on the floor, or the library.