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School kitchens heating up, thanks to stimulus

New ovens provide students with better and more nutritious meals

New ovens provide students with better and more nutritious meals

October 14, 2009|By JANET HEIM

HAGERSTOWN -- Three public schools in Washington County are reaping the benefits of federal stimulus money.

The kitchens at Bester, Salem Avenue and Winter Street elementary schools have gleaming new equipment.

Of the $100 million invested nationally in school food-service equipment, $1.4 million went to the state of Maryland, of which almost $87,000 was directed to Washington County Public Schools, said Jeffrey Proulx, the school system's supervisor of food and nutrition services.

The goal is to provide better and more nutritious meals to students and to make meal preparation more energy efficient. The funding came from federal and state subsidies, with none from the school system or local tax base, Proulx said.

School systems were selected based on competitive grant applications.

"This is a one-time hit. As soon as we heard about the federal stimulus money, we started attacking a plan," Proulx said.

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All three schools got a steamer oven, which is like a convection oven with steam, Proulx said. The equipment allows food to be cooked faster and retain more moisture, which translates to a fresher product.

It also means food is prepared on site, instead of having to be transported from a satellite kitchen. A programmable feature with a USB port allows for recipes to be input, and the oven will know the temperature and length of time required to prepare the food.

At Salem Avenue, the steamer oven replaced a steamer that malfunctioned last year.

It takes two hours to feed the approximately 500 students at Bester and the new equipment means each shift gets hot food as they're coming through the line.

With the previous satellite system, meals for the entire school were delivered before the first lunch shift, which meant the students who ate last got food that had been prepared more than two hours before they ate it.

"The kids can definitely tell a difference," Bester Principal Kristi Bachtell said.

Satellite leader Anita Heefner was thrilled that the egg rolls on a recent menu only took 10 minutes, frozen peas cooked in five minutes and the rice was done in 15 minutes. Last year, Heefner worked at Lincolnshire, where they served food prepared at a satellite kitchen.

"This is much better. It looks better, it tastes better and it's fresher. The kids are getting hot food right out of the oven. The kids are loving it," Heefner said.

Proulx said while he'd love to have all WCPS kitchens equipped this way, he said some don't have the infrastructure to support the equipment.

"Dollars and cents" are also a determining factor, he said.

In addition, Bester and Winter Street got new refrigerator/freezer equipment to replace older, less-efficient models.

The equipment was purchased from out-of-state manufacturers, but local workers from Beaver Mechanical and Shifler Electric installed the units.

The oven alerts staff when it needs to be cleaned, and the freezer indicates when it's defrosting and when the temperature has recovered after a large amount of food is put into it, Heefner said.

Proulx said the stimulus money allowed for food preparation to be taken back to the point of service in these schools, and replaced equipment at or near the end of its life.

"What it does for our kids, it's phenomenal," Proulx said.

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