The lunch ladies are going high-tech in the Bethel School District.
With the opening of a 23,000-square-foot central kitchen building, the Spanaway-based school district is changing the way it delivers 14,000 meals a day to kids.
Instead of preparing food at eight “hub” schools for shipment to more than 27 school and program sites, Bethel is switching to centralized meal preparation in a new, state-of-the-art facility near 192nd Street East and Canyon Road.
“The equipment here enables us to scratch-prepare whole foods on a massive scale,” said Leeda Beha, director of child nutrition for the school district.
Popular foods such as turkey gravy, macaroni and cheese, chili and filling for sloppy Joe sandwiches now will be cooked, quick-chilled and packaged for shipment to Bethel schools, where hot food will be reheated in convection ovens.
Raw food will be delivered to a central location, saving shipping costs.
It’s all about increasing efficiency and saving money, officials say. The district estimates it eventually will reduce the cost of running its food program — which already operates in the black — by $800,000 a year.
Those savings have been slow to materialize. The school district gained occupancy of the new kitchen in August 2014, but the facility is just now starting to supply meals for schools.
“The central kitchen phase-in is still on track and moving forward,” Beha said Monday. She hopes to complete the transition by the end of the month.
Some critics, including Bethel employees, have questioned why it is taking so long to get the kitchen facility fully up and running.
Part of the reason lies in the way it was built, district officials said.
The kitchen was constructed at the same time as a new transportation center, which is next door.
The two facilities — which together cost about $19 million — were built using a process called design-build, which integrates the design and construction phases of a project to gain efficiency. Funding came from a bond measure Bethel voters approved in 2006.
Bus drivers were ready to roll almost immediately and began using the transportation center in fall 2014.
But opening the new kitchen required more time, Beha said.
First, staff members had to be trained on the new equipment. Beha said no one lost jobs in the transition, though three senior employees chose not to move from the “hub” kitchens to the new facility.
Workers had to prepare test batches of every menu item. Not only did people need to be taught how to use the equipment, the equipment itself had to be tested.
Health department regulators had to sign off on the new food preparation techniques as well.
Operations have been moving to the new facility a step at a time, Beha said. The warehouse portion of the facility has been used since March, for example.
But it all had to be done while meals continued to be served at district schools.
“Our big challenge was continuing to provide service to all of our kids while transitioning to a new model,” Beha said. “We have to be strategic. There are so many moving parts to what we do. Every aspect of production had to be phased in.”
The new facility includes two giant 100-gallon kettles and a 50-gallon one, that can be used to prepare either hot or cold foods. The kettles have an internal heating and cooling system that either cooks or chills the food.
The prepared food is pumped from the kettle into industrial grade plastic bags that then are vacuum sealed. A computer monitors the food’s temperature as it’s prepared and bagged.
The bags of food are moved to schools in insulated transport carts — essentially giant coolers on wheels. These are loaded into trucks for delivery to schools, where hot food will be reheated.
Food can be refrigerated in the bags and stored for up to 45 days. It’s similar to the technique that produces fresh soups sold in grocery stores, Beha said.
Over the holiday break, workers were busy making large vats of reduced-fat ranch dressing. The school district uses about 160 gallons of it every week.
Making a week’s worth of dressing in one spot instead of eight results in improved efficiency over standard preparation methods, Beha said.
There also is new equipment for everything from washing and slicing apples to creating dough balls that will be baked into dinner rolls.
The new methods will allow the central kitchen to produce more fresh food from raw ingredients, use more whole foods, create more consistency in the food produced and ultimately serve up a tastier meal, Beha said.
Nearly half of Bethel’s more than 18,000 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
“Those kids rely on us for breakfast and lunch,” Beha said. “We need to make sure their basic needs are met so that they can be prepared to learn every day.”