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Bakery renovation complete, now transition begins into schools


No longer will a school cook dip out 300,000 cookies over the course of the school year, nor will Des Moines students have reason to complain about monotonous lunch menus.

Almost everything about school lunch production is changing for the better, thanks to the Des Moines Independent Community School District’s newly completed central kitchen and nutrition center, said Duane Van Hemert, the district’s executive director of facilities. The central kitchen, which is located in the former Colonial Baking Co. plant at 1225 Second Ave., will allow the district’s food staff to consistently produce better and fresher food in a controlled environment, which is a vast improvement over the system that is being replaced, Van Hemert said.

“With all the different kitchens that we have, food could be prepared different ways; you never know,” he said. “This way, you know that all the food that goes out there is safe.”

Until now, meals have been prepared at a dozen or so satellite kitchens across the district and transported hot to the 63 schools. With the new central kitchen, food preparation will be transformed into a large-scale production process where machines do most of the work, similar to an assembly line, according to Teresa Nece, the district’s director of food and nutrition.

“We’ve changed the paradigm from hands-on preparation of cooks using kettles and having to dip things out manually to using tools that will provide easier processing, and doing it in a larger volume.”

It was no easy task to gut the landmark Colonial building and get it operational. Van Hemert said work began on the $11.3 million project about 18 months ago but finished on schedule and under the original cost estimate of $12 million.

“The only part that resembles the old bakery is the outside,” he said. “Everything else has been gutted to make what is essentially a food factory. This is the only one of its kind in the state and one of only a handful of them in the entire country.”

With a project of this size, the intention never was to “flip on the switch overnight,” he said. Instead, there will be a transition period during which schools will phase in the new system. By January, Nece said, all buildings will receive bakery, “cook-chill” products and groceries from the central kitchen.

“One of the challenges of an operation change like this is the staff training,” she said. “We’re taking people who had a given talent for food preparation and moving them into what is more like an assembly-line production process. We’re finding that they are very receptive of it. Even the ones who originally thought it was a silly idea are becoming some of our biggest advocates.”

When a person sees the central kitchen, it’s hard to argue that it is not a change for the better, the two say. Its $5 million worth of state-of-the art food preparation and storage equipment ensures food safety and preserves its integrity in all stages of preparation, Nece said. One example of improved food safety is the refrigerated meat-slicing room, where a worker uses an automatic slicing machine in a 50-degree room to prepare cold cuts.

“Typically, the school kitchens have handled this themselves, and we’ve had to be very careful about it, only pulling out small quantities of meat at a time because warm kitchen temperatures could cause the meat to warm up to unsafe levels,” Nece said.

The facility’s “cook-chill” center also takes the guesswork out of bringing cooked food from a hot temperature down to a refrigerated state, and does a better job of locking in the taste, she said.

Sauces like marinara and nacho cheese and kettle-cooked foods like macaroni and cheese will be cooked, pumped out, bagged and chilled with little effort on the part of the staff, she said.

“With the ice bath process, we’re able to safely cool the food down to its 40-degree refrigeration temperature in much less time than it took before,” Nece said. “By shortening the process, we’re also capturing its real taste.”

The bakery, the largest food production area, has its own set of impressive machines, one of which, the Rondo Doge Smart Line, has a price tag of $400,000. This machine transforms dough into pizza crusts, bread sticks, dinner rolls, cinnamon rolls and more by cutting, rolling and dispersing add-ons like cinnamon and sugar. All the worker basically has to do is lay the dough on the workspace and catch it in the pan at the other end.

“Our bakers have had to pinch the rolls themselves all of this time, and it’s not an easy task to make them the same size,” Nece said. “Now we have the capabilities of getting a consistent product, and we’re not putting our workers at risk of getting carpal tunnel or tennis elbow from having to do the same motion over and over through the course of a 180-day school year.”

Workers will also be relieved to have hoists to move some of the large mixing bowls instead of having to manually lift them, Nece said.

Most food that leaves the central kitchen will be delivered to the schools in a refrigerated state. The school kitchens, or “re-therm” centers, complete the final stages of food preparation by heating the food to its serving temperature. Van Hemert estimates that it will take the next 10 or 11 years to get all the equipment at all the district’s schools changed to receive the food being produced at the central kitchen. This includes adding kitchen equipment to about 17 buildings that currently don’t have kitchens of their own.

The central kitchen will require a staff of about 50-60 to produce and distribute food to all the buildings. Nece said nobody on the district’s 399-person food staff has been laid off, and that many whose jobs will be displaced by the changes are already being moved from a specific school into the central kitchen.

The central kitchen will only require a staff of about 50-60 to produce and distribute food to all the buildings. Nece said nobody on the food staff has been laid off yet, and that many whose jobs will be displaced by the changes are already being moved from a specific school into the new central kitchen facility.

In the long-term, the project, which was funded by the 1 percent local option sales tax approved by Polk County voters in 2000, could save the district about $1 million annually by improved efficiency, as well as have the potential to generate income, Van Hemert said.

“We have the capacity to produce 100,000 meals per day, which is enough to feed every school in Polk County,” he said. “So eventually, if other schools would want us to provide this service, we could.”

He said he also sees opportunities for the central kitchen to produce meals for groups such as Meals on Wheels and even entire facilities such as the new Iowa Events Center. But for now, the focus will be on feeding Des Moines’ 32,000 students. The kitchen will operate year-round.

Though setting up the central kitchen system has been a massive undertaking, to the students, very little will look different in the beginning, Nece said.

“The smells in a school kitchen – what brings kids down to eat lunch in the first place – will still exist,” she said. “As we get settled in more, we will be able to move into recipe development and be able to change the looks of our menus and give students a lot more choices.”  

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