COLUMBIA — The cooks were not expecting to see the Combi BCX-14 oven sitting in the kitchen when they returned to work after the holiday break, but there it was in all its glory: stainless steel surfaces, five tray levels and multiple heating options, including both hot air and steam.
The combination, or "combi" oven, was like a belated Christmas gift for Melissa Scott, kitchen manager at Benton Elementary School.
Built in 1896, Benton is the oldest of the 19 elementary schools in the Columbia Public School District. Like Benton, most of these schools have kitchens that are decades old. Scott's kitchen is roughly 24 feet by 10 feet, and she previously cooked with an older five-tray convection oven, which she still has, and a 50- to 70-year-old cast-iron stove with 30-pound griddles and only two tray levels.
Cooking with the old stove and oven took twice as long, she said. Now, the foods she's serving — especially vegetables — seem fresher. And the bonus is she now has time for a more leisurely lunch break.
Grant Elementary School faced similar challenges a couple of years ago, before kitchen workers got a new convection oven to replace what kitchen manager Carol Gosselin called an "old relic."
Now she manages the small room and minimal freezer space by receiving daily deliveries of meat. She cooks and stores side dishes.
“I’ve got everything stacked in there just as tight as I can get it,” she said.
Sheryl Woodson, kitchen manager at Lee Elementary School, said she has the equipment and space she needs in her kitchen, but she lacks room to store refrigerated foods. On delivery day, her freezers fill up with packages of ready-made meals.
The new combi oven at Benton is one part of a plan the district is implementing to enable schools to serve more foods made from scratch. Some schools, such as Benton, will get equipment to improve efficiency; others with the largest kitchens will be outfitted to produce and deliver freshly cooked foods to the smaller, satellite schools.
The overall goal is to serve 30 percent more fresh, unprocessed and/or local foods to children within the next three years, district nutrition director Laina Fullum said.
The district already has bought new equipment for programs such as free beans and rice served twice weekly at elementary schools, Superintendent Chris Belcher said. Schools needed containers to keep the food warm, but not too hot, while kids serve themselves throughout lunch periods.
Other new equipment will include 35 insulated carts for transporting catered goods, three to five blast chiller refrigerators, three to five convection (combi) ovens, an expanded hood system for kitchen ventilation, three to five large Robot Coupe food processing systems and vegetable steamers, Fullum said.
Fullum has not decided yet which schools will be converted to prepare foods for others, but the district already has purchased two trucks to deliver hot or frozen catered food each day.
Daily deliveries will help kitchen managers who have little storage space. Currently, schools receive weekly deliveries of pre-made meals, such as Tyson's chicken nuggets or Tony's Pizza. The food fills freezers and leaves less room for fresh, perishable ingredients that are more difficult to stack.
In the next school year, the district will convert 45 percent of its processed commodities (not its total foods) to raw or less processed commodities, including whole muscle beef, chicken and turkey products. But Fullum said it remains uncertain how many freshly cooked meals that will allow the kitchens to serve.
She is striving to meet the newly proposed USDA guidelines for school meals. But whether or not the guidelines pass, she will keep schools committed to them, she said.
Meanwhile, she wants to maintain taste consistency, which is another advantage to catering. Middle-school cooks introduced one freshly cooked meal — barbecue glazed chicken — into their menus this year, and it was well received, Fullum said. Others can cook creatively if they choose. But kitchen staff have varying levels of training and skills.
Kitchen workers at Benton prepared chicken fajita wraps with seasoned chicken, American cheese, spinach, lettuce, jalapeño cheese and ranch dressing in a soft shell taco on Wednesday. Scott has a ServSafe permit, and others in the kitchen have food handlers permits.
They put the orange-tortilla wraps, bursting with lettuce, into deli-style containers. The idea, Scott said, is to serve more sophisticated, restaurant-style food to broaden kids' palates.
Talk of change
Scott arrives at 7 a.m. on school days, and she has to work fast to serve nearly 200 children breakfast before the other workers arrive at 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. She usually serves food in prepackaged "boats" that can include muffins, granola bars or pancakes with milk and juice. Occasionally, a child can choose string cheese. Children having breakfast must take the whole boat, but they can share the extra.
Scott said time is the biggest challenge when it comes to serving more foods made from scratch. "We'd have to have a little bit more time to prepare."
Still, she isn't expecting many more changes to her kitchen. Though it is small, she can work efficiently, she said. With the combi oven, she can cook 120 chicken patties in 15 minutes, and they come out moist and crispy, kitchen staff said.
"I like working here because it's small," Benton cook Regina Tavarez said. "I know what I'm supposed to do."
Both look forward to serving more fresh food, though.
"I think it's very workable, and it will please many of our parents who want more foods from scratch — less processed foods," Scott said.