Sacramento City Unified searching for game plan to build central kitchen

School kitchens squeezed for space

At Ethel I. Baker Elementary School, like at other schools, the kitchen is so small that food service workers bump into one another just to get to a refrigeration unit. More than 700 students eat breakfast, lunch or both at the school, but kitchen
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At Ethel I. Baker Elementary School, like at other schools, the kitchen is so small that food service workers bump into one another just to get to a refrigeration unit. More than 700 students eat breakfast, lunch or both at the school, but kitchen

Kindergartners marched to the cafeteria service windows at Ethel I. Baker Elementary School on Thursday, proffered their meal trays and selected their lunches: tamale, yogurt or spaghetti and meatballs, plus fresh fruit and milk.

By the end of the lunch period, more than 700 students ate breakfast, lunch or both at the school. The kitchen is so small that food-service workers bump into one another just to get to a refrigeration unit.

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Relief may come in the form of a $40 million central kitchen that has been discussed for several years without a concrete plan. Sacramento City Unified School District Trustee Jessie Ryan said Friday it’s time to move forward.

“To my knowledge, this hasn’t been a top priority until recently,” she said. “I think there have been disagreements on location. From my perspective, we can’t lose sight of the fact that the central kitchen needs to be built because it is the will of our voters. Our community has been vocal about saying, ‘What’s the inaction here?’ 

Nutrition officials say tiny kitchens, inadequate food-preparation surfaces and limited oven and refrigerator space tend to be the rule at dozens of elementary and middle schools in the Sacramento City Unified School District.

No kitchen in the district is equipped to fully meet the growing desire for predominantly scratch foods and fresh local produce for as many as 47,000 students each school day, said Nutrition Services Director Brenda Padilla.

So how do district officials deliver the combinations of breakfasts, lunches and snacks for so many schools without a central kitchen? District officials say they often rely on prepackaged foods and frozen entrees from third-party vendors.

80 Number of sites that provide student meals in Sacramento City Unified School District

The numbers are boggling. The district supplies food to 74 district schools plus four independent charters, one school operated by the Sacramento County Office of Education, one adult school and a half-dozen other education sites.

Sacramento City Unified campuses serve as a meal lifeline for the majority of students. According to state data, 64 percent of Sacramento City Unified K-12 students last school year qualified for free or reduced-price meals based on low household income. The district offers free breakfast to all, regardless of need.

Five high schools can accomplish some scratch cooking, said Chef-Manager David Edgar. But those schools – Burbank, Kennedy, Rosemont, McClatchy and Hiram Johnson – are maxed out.

“The families in our district for the most part want better-quality foods,” Edgar said. “We’ve reached our capacity with our current facilities to do as much as we can.”

District spokesman Gabe Ross said the concept of what’s healthy has changed since many of the schools were built.

“Most of our schools were built in the ’60s and ’70s, when the model was very different. When reheating frozen lunches was not just the standard but sort of the acceptable standard,” Ross said. “So not only has the amount of food that we serve, the different meals and the different segments of our population changed, but we know a lot more collectively about health and the impact on student learning. So in the last 50 years, the context has changed. There are more kids, more meals, and it has got to be better food.”

Rather than remodeling and enlarging kitchens at each campus, Sacramento City Unified sees the central kitchen as its best option to improve the quality of food. That would allow more scratch cooking and distribution to schools, fewer prepackaged meals, less worry about additives and preservatives, and the opportunity to support local fruit and vegetable growers who can’t process or chop their own products.

The district also sees potential to save money through more efficient food preparation.

To pay for a central kitchen, the district is eyeing Measure R bond funds voters approved in 2012. That measure designated $68 million for improvements such as playgrounds, athletic fields, physical education buildings, irrigation systems, asbestos and lead removal, and upgraded kitchen facilities, with no priority cited.

But the Sacramento central kitchen would require up to $40 million, according to the district’s own estimates. That’s most of the 2012 bond authorization, and the district has more needs than it can pay for. Some parents at McClatchy High School, for instance, recently asked district leaders to improve athletic facilities.

At Baker Elementary, the tiny kitchen is crammed with large refrigerators, an oven, two food warmers and other heavy-duty equipment. A freezer sits in the multipurpose room where students eat.

There are but two small food-preparation stations. One cafeteria worker placed two large baking sheets on an undersized countertop to slice bread. To accomplish that, she had to block an aisle.

At the other station, lead kitchen services worker Charolette Broughton accidentally backed into another worker when she tried to refrigerate lettuce.

Edgar said he and four other workers struggled at a closed school when they washed and then cut up watermelon for 4,000 students in a summer program.

“Logistically, it was a nightmare,” Edgar said. “It was very labor-intensive. It was a mess because we don’t have the proper facilities.”

Padilla said no elementary kitchen could handle such a task on that scale. “So we rely on the distributor to cut up our lettuce, to cut up our cantaloupe.

“We need to have it cut and served within hours,” she said. “Not in a day. Not in three days.”

The district has already centralized some food preparation at the former C.B. Wire Elementary School, which closed in 2013.

Close to 30 people each day work three-hour shifts to assemble some 7,000 “light suppers” for students who attend after-school programs. On Thursday, workers dumped oranges into a bin and, rapid-fire, combined an orange, Italian wrap, pudding cup and carrots in a plastic bag for each supper.

The bags were sealed and cut with a semiautomated cutter then stacked on trays for bundling to 67 schools for after-school consumption.

These days, students stay longer than ever at school, Padilla said. “Kids are here from 7 a.m. until 6 p.m. for a lot of excellent reasons. They’re learning. They’re getting tutoring. They’re in the regular school. Then they need to have something to eat. It needs to be healthy, nutritious and available.”

Logistically, it was a nightmare. It was very labor intensive. It was a mess because we don’t have the proper facilities.

Sacramento schools Chef-Manager David Edgar on preparing watermelon for 4,000 students

Other large districts in the region have already used the approach being discussed by Sacramento City Unified. The Elk Grove Unified School District opened its central kitchen in 1994 during a period of rapid community growth. The idea at the time was to establish the central cooking site for the district so that future schools could be designed without large kitchens, said Michelle Drake, director of food and nutrition services. The other incentive, she said, was “the quality of the product they could create at the central kitchen.”

There are cost savings, Drake added. “We have have some processed foods because we want to give choice,” she said. The central kitchen also has a bakery, cooks from scratch, and prepares components for meals such as sauces that can be combined into foods at the schools.