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Houston, We Have a Bakery

Whole grains are just part of some big whole-district changes happening at Houston ISD.

THE BIG TIME. (l.) Houston ISD made the switch to whole grain flour; large-scale equipment required training, along with the culture change from individual kitchens to a big central prodcution facility (r.)

Big, bigger and biggest. That's the way it is for a new baking program in Houston (TX) Independent School District, an Aramark Education account. There is a big healthful eating initiative underway that includes using 51-100% whole grain flour in more than half of all bakery items. And the bakery is part of a bigger centralized production facility than the district has ever seen. Topping off these changes — which have been occurring over the past couple years and culminating with this school year — by next fall, Houston ISD will have one of the largest breakfast-in-the-classroom programs in the country.

How big is big? Let's talk numbers. The district serves 220,000 meals a day. Right now, 75 campuses get breakfast in the classroom, and by fall, the program will expand to 220 campuses (elementary and middle schools). Participation in breakfast is now at 35% (a very respectable number) but Julie Spreckelmeyer, director of food service communications, Houston ISD, Aramark Education, says the district (which is 83% free and reduced and has an enrollment of 200,000 students) is hoping breakfast participation levels will increase to as high as 85%.

More big numbers: The bakery is 32,000 square feet, occupying the biggest section of the new 220,000 square-foot central production facility, which also houses storage areas and a cook-chill operation. The district used to operate individual kitchens — and some cooking is still done that way — but since last fall, 60% of all food is prepared in the central production facility.

Still don't believe this bakery is big?

The new bakery equipment is state of the art. Four hundred pounds of dough can be dropped into the district's dough divider. Five hundred pounds of muffin batter can be continuously pumped into pans right out of the mixing bowls.

“We're lucky enough to have an in-house silo for the flour that holds 75,000 lbs. of flour,” says the district's executive chef, John Guimond, who is very proud of what has been happening with the bakery program.

Although the transition has been smooth, adapting to a central production facility has had its challenges, as has switching from all-purpose or bread flour to 100% whole grain, Guimond says.

There are 22 people on the bakery staff plus one supervisor.

Another challenge is presented by the realities of school meal budget constraints, something Guimond always must keep in mind. “It's a challenge to be creative,” he says.

Using commodities that are raw ingredients is one way the bakery rises to the challenge. Commodity blueberries work great in the blueberry muffins.

When the kitchen equipment was selected, Guimond had white flour in mind. Using the first type of whole grain flour they tried ended up gumming up the works of some of the machines. Trial and error led to a leading refined flour that is 100% whole grain. It has a lighter color than other whole grain flours and works very well, producing baked goods that students really can't tell are whole grain.

“We did extensive testing of the recipes, and now we have great-tasting products,” Guimond says, referring to biscuits, buns and dinner rolls. A favorite for breakfast, especially, are the kolaches, sausage wrapped in dough and then baked.

“The hill country around Austin has a German population, who introduced kolaches to the area. The kids recognize it and love it,” he says. The kolaches and muffins are two of the biggest breakfast items.

The district has been expanding its “universal” free breakfast, which eases the burden of handling money in the morning.

Breakfast has been proven to “improve attendance and test scores and reduce trips to the nurse's office” for students, helping them to become high achievers, Spreckelmeyer says.

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