Problem: Duval County (Fla.) Public Schools wanted to continue providing high quality, nutritious meals to its students without raising lunch prices.
Solution: The district teamed with Aramark, its food service provider, to design a 69,000-square-foot nutrition center for centralized meal production. Until the new center was constructed, each school had its own kitchen and prepared meals on site. The district also had three facilities that prepared meals for the smaller schools. The new facility has centralized food services and streamlined production, explains John Radcliffe, director of technical & logistic services.
Keeping Food Fresh
Funding for the $16.3 million facility came from a certificate of participation from the district and surplus funds in the food services budget. Food services funds are restricted in the district and must remain in the department's budget. The district owns the building, but Aramark handles labor and management. A great deal of the food preparation process has been mechanized. Once food is placed in the cook kettles, human hands do not touch it again until it is served at the schools. There has been a 45 percent reduction in production time as well.
"When you cook between 300 and 900 gallons in two hours, it makes a big difference," Radcliffe says. "You haven't lived until you've seen 300 gallons of chicken salad." Once food is cooked, it is pumped into bags in chilled water for rapid cooling (which prevents microorganisms from developing), frozen, and delivered frozen to the schools. The district purchased seven refrigerator trucks for that purpose. The goal is to prepare the food a week before it is delivered. The entire nutrition facility is kept at 38 degrees, and the freezer reaches negative 10 degrees. Explains Radcliffe, "We are focusing on keeping the food safe and getting it to the schools fresh."
The facility opened on August 1 and the first day of school was August 7, so no figures were available about savings from the new facility. The nutrition center will eventually have 60 people on staff. Some of them moved from the schools, but basically Aramark handles staffing. Since the staff in the schools will just need to reheat prepared food, the district will be able to reassess staffing levels. Also, the district can now buy supplies in bulk because it has space to store items. Although 30 walk-in freezers have recently been installed throughout the district, most schools have small freezers.
Jacksonville has 40 percent free and reduced lunch. "For some students [lunch] is their main meal." Radcliffe says lunch prices have not changed since 1990, and with the efficiencies of the new center the district expects to maintain the current prices for several years. Although all elementary students in the district receive breakfast, the nutrition center is focusing on preparing lunch and will look at the "cost effectiveness of breakfast down the line."
The center has a chef, and Aramark has a dietitian on staff who designs the menus. The district has a nutritionist who reviews them, as required by the new wellness guidelines. Radcliffe says the new guidelines were not a factor in deciding to build the facility as the business plan was being developed three years ago.
The facility has allowed the district to expand daily offerings. Elementary students have a choice of five entrees a day, while secondary students get eight. Choices include beefy mac and cheese, sliced or roast turkey, stew, chili, pizza and vegetarian options. The district works with the students to ensure they like the selections and will buy them. Of course, student favorites remain pizza, chicken nuggets, hamburgers, and "Frito chili pie," which was described as taco meat on nachos. Radcliffe has received good feedback from the cafeteria managers, and the students are enjoying the meals. But the best compliment they have received was during a media event on opening day: one of the cameramen told Radcliffe the meal was "nothing like the school food he remembered."
Ann McClure is associate editor.