Six years ago, Springfield Public Schools in Springfield, Mass., began implementing breakfast in the classroom. The goal? To provide a morning meal for all students at each of the district’s 65 schools. As members of the nutrition team began to roll out the program, however, they struggled to create a diverse menu.
“We quickly found there was a lack of good, healthy products to support that program. We couldn't find [products] in the marketplace that met the meal pattern and that also were a healthy, hearty breakfast item,” says Food Service Director Tim Gray. “So we decided that we were going to start making those items ourselves.”
But as the district’s scratch-made program grew, so did the need for a building that could support it. Enter the culinary and nutrition center, which made its debut in April. The 67,000-square-foot building provides ample space to ideate, test and prepare from-scratch dishes for all mealparts. Read on to see how.
Bringing it in-house
The nutrition team spent about $5 million on equipment for the center’s bakery, warehouse, and packaging and processing rooms, including a meat slicer that allows staff to slice roughly 3,000 pounds of turkey in two hours. While the center is responsible for creating the scratch-made meals, it isn’t replacing any of the individual school kitchens, Gray says. Center staff prepare the main components of a meal, which are then delivered to schools for the finishing touches.
In the few months the center has been open, the focus has been getting it up and running, Gray says, noting that he hopes to expand the number of scratch-made items on the menu by the time school starts this fall. “We're hoping that that by the new school year in September that we are making 70% of the items fresh here,” he says.
Training on tap
To bring a menu item from conception to finished product takes the district roughly three months, Gray says. The center’s training and test kitchen gives staff the space to craft future dishes and also provides an area for them to learn new culinary techniques.
Nutrition staff will not be the only ones making use of the space, however. About 85% of students in the district come from families that struggle financially, and Gray hopes the training room will eventually host cooking classes for students and their families.
The $21 million project was only possible with support from the community, Gray says. “The city of Springfield stepped up and bonded for the project. So we were able to build this facility in less than two years, and we will now be able to pay the bond back through the proceeds of the program as, like, a rent payment,” he says, noting that “it won't cost the taxpayers anything.”
Project leaders have also set up a panel of community partners and local business leaders, who will help the center continue to evolve and address problems that may come up down the line. “We get together, you know, three, four or five times a month, and we discuss situations about the center and how we can resolve issues and problems,” Gray says. “Everybody's buying in and everybody has their hand in that.”