Among the many challenges food-service directors take on, becoming an expert in facilities design and equipment is a particularly tough one. Directors can have a wide range of facilities and equipment experience–some have none, while others may have served as project manager for the construction of a central production facility. While this experience is most commonly gained by learning on the job, this is not recommended. You may have witnessed firsthand the aftermath of poor or uninformed decisions made by a predecessor–or a director of operations or maintenance–who lacked a good understanding of all aspects of your operation. If directors are to evaluate the potential role of an existing site in a planned central or regional production model, they must have enough knowledge to make key decisions.
It is essential for the food-service director and key members of their management team to learn enough about facility design and equipment to guide the district, no matter whether the project involves investment in a few pieces of equipment or the design of many kitchens and dining areas as part of a larger school construction effort. Food-service directors are often asked to compromise or scale back on their “dream” facility, or to work with an architect or food service equipment company that they did not choose, as a result of bond projects or pre-existing agreements with the district. Being fully educated and informed allows a director to make the most advantageous decisions and direct her/his resources as effectively as possible in such circumstances.
A good place to start is the excellent handbook for food-service directors developed by the Institute of Child Nutrition (ICN) titled "Purchasing and Facility Design for School Nutrition Programs." This manual offers in-depth coverage of the topic, from a rundown of all the equipment and the design options in different applications to the ramifications of a district’s vision for the future on final decisions.
Aging Kitchens in the Scratch-Cook Renaissance
It is not uncommon for school districts around the country to have aging kitchen equipment that is more than forty years old. Directors are constantly making decisions about what equipment to fix, replace, or live without. If the annual food-service budget does not have a line item for depreciation, or does not regularly set aside funds for equipment replacement, this necessity has been overlooked or simply unfunded. The National School Lunch Program used to provide funding for equipment, but this ended in the late 70s.
In 2009 and 2010, when the USDA offered schools $125 million in equipment funding through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the agency received more than $630 million in requests. In response to the volume of unmet requests, the Pew Charitable Trust’s “Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project,” in conjunction with Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, conducted two surveys. The first focused on school districts’ ability to meet the new HHFKA guidelines (see the report); the second, known as the "Kitchen Infrastructure and Training in Schools (KITS) Study," focused on kitchen infrastructure and training in schools. The findings of these reports establish the continued high need for equipment replacement and training in school districts in order for schools to offer meals that meet the HHKFA standards as efficiently as possible.
Key Findings from the KITS Study
- Finding 1: The vast majority of school food authorities (88%) needed one or more pieces of equipment to help them meet the current lunch standards. Of those that reported having inadequate equipment, more than 85% are “making do” with a less efficient process or workaround.
- Finding 2: Only 42% of school food authorities reported having a budget to purchase capital equipment, and less than half expected the budget to be adequate to meet their equipment needs.
- Finding 3: More than half of all school-food authorities (55%) need kitchen infrastructure changes at one or more schools to meet the lunch requirements.
Shortly after the findings were released, the USDA announced some limited funding for equipment grants–the first since 2009 (see the press release). Though this is a small improvement, it is a step in the right direction. The lack of USDA funding simply emphasizes the fact that districts and food service departments must be proactive and have an expansive vision of their future needs.
Equipment Inventory and Replacement Management
Just about every district has a food service equipment “graveyard,” where unused kitchen equipment and smallwares sit and gather dust. These items are often saved because the resources to replace them may not be available in the future. One problem, however, is that the history of such equipment–details such as when it was purchased or the last time it was repaired–is not always known; or if it is, the knowledge may not be readily accessible in written form.
To support your preventive maintenance and replacement management plans, take the time to develop and maintain an equipment inventory that includes the following information:
- Location of the item
- Average production volume for that location
- Purchase order number
- Product model number
- Repair history
- Information about the item’s “retirement,” including whether the retired equipment is still within the district
A ten- to twelve-year depreciation cycle is typical for foodservice equipment, but the actual life of an item depends on how well the equipment has been maintained and what kind of use it has had. For example, equipment that is used in a central, regional, or base kitchen may see far more use than equipment at an elementary school serving just 400 meals a day with only 175 days of operation a year. For this reason, updating the equipment inventory form is essential. Photos of the equipment are useful, and any change in location should be logged.
In the modern era of scratch cooking, planning for equipment acquisition and maintenance that is compatible with your future operational models, as well as keeping replacement within your scope for the longer term, will make for a safer, cleaner, and more productive work environment for your employees. Though an acquisition cost of $5000 is the common baseline for depreciation, all “non-expendable” equipment (meaning equipment that is not disposable or has a life limited to a year or two) with a value of $500 or more should be inventoried annually. This will make it easy to identify the total value of relevant equipment when planning changes to kitchens or menus.
When setting aside funds for equipment replacement, the annual depreciation amount is a guide that is commonly used; that is, you should set aside funds equal to the amount of depreciation in your budget. If your equipment ages beyond the depreciation period, keep setting aside funds and review your annual equipment tracking document to identify equipment that is slated for replacement.
Evaluating Facilities for Program Change or Expansion
When considering changes to your menu or your services, like making salad bars a regular feature of your reimbursable meal, or expanding breakfast services to a breakfast-in-the-classroom model, you must assess the compatibility of your buildings and equipment. If you have maintained a by-site equipment inventory, you will have a good idea of where you may need improvement or additional investment. For assessment purposes, we have created a Salad Bar Site Assessment Tool and a Breakfast Assessment Tool to assist you in evaluating your district for change.
Reorganization ‒ Alternatives to the Site-Based Production Model
The most challenging aspect of K–12 operations is balancing the cost of production while shifting toward the desired food and menu model. The current era of processed food in America affects every venue of food available to children and adults. Although school districts do need extra resources and dedication to step outside the norm and innovate, it is not impossible. Consolidating the production model to a single site, or fewer sites, is the most cost-effective and efficient approach to balancing investment with the desired outcome of better foods, better access, and better service.
While centralization is the most efficient way to accomplish this, there are many other ways to consolidate, such as using regional kitchens or depending on specific kitchens to handle particular areas of the menu, like produce production. Scaling up the means of production allows greater control over not only the resources aggregated for production (i.e., the food and supplies), but also the labor, even though a consolidated production model requires more specialized and expensive staffing.
The primary reasons to consider consolidation of production are quality, efficiency, and cost. Taking advantage of the opportunity to scale up the means of production will have positive, long-term results. The alternative is to maintain and improve multiple older sites while trying to keep meal quality consistent from site to site–an extremely difficult proposition in the scratch-cook production environment. Producing complex meals with fresh ingredients at multiple sites is challenging, particularly at older sites that may need significant facility improvements to prepare them for scratch cooking. Older kitchens with just one dual-bowl sink, for example, would face the risk of contamination if they had to prep salad bar ingredients and sort raw poultry in the same morning. Consolidation may be the most effective way to respond to these kinds of specific limiting factors.
For a district committed to improving food quality through implementing whole-ingredient meal production, consolidation offers many advantages:
- It ensures that the quality of the food is consistent district-wide – the greatest hurdle in successfully making the shift to scratch production.
- It allows for efficiencies in food procurement by bringing a majority of the food into a central location.
- It reduces food costs, both through the price advantages of a single delivery location and the lower cost of inventory at the sites.
- It limits the specialized labor required for large-scale scratch cooking to a central location.
- It allows the focus at the sites to be turned more to the students and the service, which will help drive higher meal counts.
- It typically requires less labor at the satellite school sites, which balances the higher cost of labor required at the production site.
With central or regional production facilities, it may also be possible to expand catering and contract services beyond the boundaries of the district, which can generate additional revenue for the department. In districts with older building infrastructures, or those that have limited capacity for improvements to school-site kitchen facilities, a central production facility consolidates the investment in one location and simplifies equipment needs at the site level.
Budget Development When Planning Consolidation
When considering shifting to a regional or centralized production model, developing a labor comparison is a key component, because the largest expense category is labor (see Sample Reorganization Worksheet). The scope of the comparison depends on the size of the current staffing model, the potential impact of the reorganization, and the length of time needed to complete the reorganization. We usually develop a workbook that compares labor figures for the current year to projected figures for the next two years. Our sample labor comparison is based on a consolidation with an estimated completion time of two years.
Consolidation also affects food costs. The shift in food costs generated through centralizing production and purchasing can be significant. They generally go down, but for budget development purposes you can utilize current procurement and participation data to allocate a sufficient amount. In addition, vendors that would not be available to a district that required by-site delivery may be much more interested in providing services to a centralized or regionalized production environment.
Other areas that will need to be considered include transportation, warehouse management, menus, production schedules, labor at the satellite sites, purchasing, and all recordkeeping and transaction processes. In most cases, a shift to consolidated production will require significant reorganization of the department’s workflow and systems.
Central Kitchen Planning
There are several key factors that a district must consider when planning to centralize production. There is an excellent "Guide to Centralized Food Service Systems" that covers the many aspects of planning that should be taken into account. The most important are discussed below.
- Vision: Development of a central production facility requires the food-services department to have a clear vision of its desired food-service system, and to have established its mission and objectives for food service. The production model must be a part of the picture of school food in the district. The potential support of the broader community must also be considered. Centralized models are no more a “silver bullet” than any other operating model – their success depends on effective planning, support, and implementation.
- Menu: The menu drives many of the design decisions: menu goals, both short-term and long-term, should guide the design of the facility and inform every aspect of the central production concept. The schools receiving the meals may need some upgrades to make them compatible with a centralized system. It’s essential to consider cold storage needs, the proper finishing of shipped foods, and the way the food is to be served.
The menu as the focal point in centralized production facility planning (source: NFSMI Guide to Centralized Food Service, pp. 50–51)
- Square Footage and Staffing Models: When it comes to size, most central production facility plans recommend one square foot of space per meal produced. In reality, however, the square footage of such facilities varies widely. Districts often add to or rebuild existing footprints and revise existing staffing models within negotiated agreements. Calculations of productivity values (i.e., meals per labor hour) in the central production model also vary, depending on the perspective of the district in question. In other words, the “standards” in central production facilities, which are not strictly defined within school food models, become even less clear when fresh, scratch production enters the picture. No matter how much the plans try to account for all scenarios, change is inevitable; the design therefore requires flexibility and an understanding that adjustments may be needed in the future.
- Bakery: Most plans for central production facilities include a bakery as a standard area of the design. The majority of the bakery production found in school facilities focuses on a la carte production or limited production for breakfast. Because the bread items most commonly used in school food—hamburger buns, hot dog buns, and to a lesser extent sliced bread—cannot economically be included in a central production plan, we recommend that if the district plans to produce specialty bread items that a cost-benefit analysis is performed that compares procurement of similar products to the cost of producing them.
- Storage and Distribution: A clear vision of the role of the warehouse and storage in the central production facility is important. In bulk purchasing, it is most commonly assumed that the best leverage for cost savings is to have all deliveries arriving at one central point in the district for by-site delivery. We have found, however, that many districts revert back to or originally incorporate direct deliveries of limited products (milk, bread, uncut produce) to the schools, particularly to larger receptor sites, in order to control overall inventory cost and limit the load on central distribution. Primary consideration should be given to daily food deliveries and/or pickups; delivery of dry goods and supply deliveries to the sites can be reduced to as little as once or twice a month, depending on the design plan.
- Sustainability and Waste Management: In districts that are focusing on “greening” the school environment, we recommend that the central production facility be able to innovate through planning sustainable practices throughout its system. Food service is notorious for its waste, and incorporating proven sustainable practices within the design can align with sustainability goals. Recycling, compacting, pulping, and composting should all be considered within design protocols, as well as specifying equipment that is “green” to the greatest extent possible.
- Automated Efficiencies and Staff Skills: New technology is constantly affecting the market in all industries, and food service is no exception. Greater labor efficiency can be achieved with the use of automated timesaving devices, ranging from equipment to safeguard the safety and health of employees working with large amounts of heavy ingredients, such as mechanical hoists, to computerized temperature control devices that monitor critical control points during production. In selecting equipment, consideration must be given to the entire spectrum of planned use, as well as the skill sets required for operation of various systems; budgeting time to train and learn is essential.
- Safety Protocol and Meal Contingency: Food safety, worker safety, and building emergency plans must all be developed as part of the central facility planning process. Implementation and maintenance of HACCP plans, worker safety protocol, and emergency plans are critical and cannot be ignored within this whole process. In addition to emergency planning for the central production facility, it is essential to consider meal contingency planning for service to the population in the event the facility cannot be operated. This would include a multi-day approach, taking into account what the emergency food plan would be and how many days it would be in effect.
- Future Planning (Commerce and the Central Production Facility): The question of whether a central production facility will produce foods or products for sale should be considered at the outset, as regular USDA inspection would be required. If sales are anticipated, office space for the USDA should be included in the plan.
Funding Capital Improvements
Capital improvements are defined as the acquisition of land, buildings and equipment. Use of money from the food-service fund for capital purchases is limited to equipment that is considered reasonable and necessary to provide quality meals. Money spent on capital expenditures that materially add to the value of the school building and related facilities or appreciably prolong its intended life should be the responsibility of the school district.
Funding major renovations, equipment acquisition, or outright new construction usually exceeds the capability of a food-service department, even one that regularly posts a healthy fund balance. In these cases, possible funding sources include grants, such as federal equipment assistance grants; donations from an outside foundation; direct purchase or acquisition by the school district general fund; or inclusion in a local school bond measure. Because every state has different regulations surrounding school bonds, you should work with your district administration if you want to use this route for capital improvements. It is also prudent to discuss possible capital improvements with your state’s department of education to determine their opinion on the source of the funds you intend to use for your purchases.
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