Pathways to Excellence in School Food: Maximizing Limited Facilities

August 20, 2013

How schools with limited kitchen facilities are changing their models.

School food programs across the country are trying to reinvent themselves in response to the critical health needs of students. Over the past year, Healthy Schools Campaign has been working with the Chicago Public Schools to develop a comprehensive plan to achieve excellence in their school meal program. This plan centers around 10 interconnected pathways that are critical to success of every school food program.

This week, we highlight efforts relating to maximizing limited facilities. Learn more about the 10 pathways to excellence in school food and to read about Chicago Public Schools’ action plans for achieving excellence in school nutrition.

Many schools in Chicago are old, built during an era when students went home for lunch. This has presented a challenge for current food service operations, and today 176 schools in Chicago have very limited kitchen facilities. At these schools, meals are cooked off-site, frozen in individual servings, delivered to the school and reheated and served to students. While these meals are supplemented with fresh fruits and vegetables, many students find the pre-plated frozen meals unappealing.

As a result of concerns from parents, CPS has been working to change the service delivery model in these schools. One of the first schools to pilot a new delivery model is Sauganash Elementary School, on Chicago’s North Side. Before the pilot began, students at Sauganash received meals prepared in “mods,” or vacuum-sealed individual-serving packages. But now, food arrives from the off-site commissary in pans with four to six servings, the maximum size that will fit in the existing warming ovens. Food service staff plates the individual servings, giving the meal directly to the students as they walk through the cafeteria line. The result is the same meal, but with a more appealing presentation.

Since the pilot program launched in February 2013, the school has reported an increase in lunch participation. Sauganash Facilities Manager Dwayne Anderson says participation has increased the most among the school’s youngest students.

As with any change in food service, Sauganash staff found they needed strong support to facilitate the new service style. Sauganash Elementary School Principal Christine Munns says the school has received great support and training from CPS in making this transition.

CPS plans to continue this work in the coming school year and beyond. One of the key items in the action plans the School Food Advisory Groups created was to transition away from the “TV dinner”-style meal service to adapting warming kitchens for a more traditional cafeteria-style meal service. As part of the new school food service contract, CPS will transition most of the 176 schools with warming kitchens to this cafeteria-style service, which will help make healthy food choices more appealing to students.