The vast majority of school kitchens in California need equipment – from a $5 student meal tray to a $297,000 steam kettle capable of cooking and chilling 5,000 meals a day – to be more successful at serving lunches that meet federal nutrition standards, according to a report released Thursday.
And two of three school districts reported needing additional training for school nutrition staff to fully implement the nutrition requirements, according to the report by The Pew Charitable Trusts, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and The California Endowment.
In a survey of 238 randomly selected school district food service departments in the state, 93 percent said they needed at least one piece of kitchen equipment to help them store fresh, canned and frozen foods, prepare entrees and serve meals, the report said.
Statewide, 95 percent of school districts are meeting the nutrition standards introduced in 2012, which call for more fruits and vegetables, low-fat foods and whole grains, the report said. But food service employees often manually chop pounds of fruits and vegetables, keep food off-site and drive it back every day because of lack of storage space, and prepare lunch in shifts because of lack of counter space, the report said.
Many equipment needs pre-date the requirement that schools serve healthier meals, said Jessica Donze Black, director of the Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project, a collaboration of The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The increase in servings of fruits and vegetables, and the renewed emphasis on fresh rather than processed foods, has prompted the call for more preparation space, slicers, knives and refrigeration and other equipment, Black said.
“That will allow us to make Alfredo sauces and marinara and get back to more scratch cooking — comfort food, as my chef likes to call it,” said Rodney Taylor, director of nutrition services at Riverside Unified School District.
The key pieces of equipment that Rodney Taylor, director of nutrition services at Riverside Unified School District, would like to have are the industrial-size steam kettles that can cook and chill food. “That will allow us to make Alfredo sauces and marinara and get back to more scratch cooking – comfort food, as my chef likes to call it – and move away from processed food,” Taylor said.
Utility carts ranked as the most commonly needed equipment item, with 60 percent of food service departments in the state reporting that need, followed by 51 percent that need walk-in refrigerators, 48 percent that need walk-in freezers and 46 percent needing knives and cutting boards.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the National School Lunch Program, has directed $17.3 million in kitchen equipment funding to California from 2009 to 2014, the report said, while districts have received additional funding from non-profit organizations, private donations and local and state funding. “The money needs to come from a variety of sources,” said Black of Pew Charitable Trusts.
More than 3.2 million children in California participate in the National School Lunch Program each school day, and some students consume as many as half of their daily calories at school, the report said.
Given the impact of school meals on student health and well-being, Black said improving school kitchens is an important investment. “We believe this is actually a priority for policy makers at every level,” Black said.
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