Missoula County Public Schools (MCPS) in Montana uses a central production kitchen built 20 years ago to produce some 6,000 modern, healthful meals each day for its 3,726 elementary school students and 1,722 middle school students, as well as the district alternative high school, early kindergarten program and a couple of Head Start sites. Meanwhile, the standard district high schools do their own production in onsite kitchens.
The central kitchen begins production for each day’s lunch early that same day.
“They are in there at five in the morning cooking it up and getting ready to send it out on the trucks,” observes Stacey Rossmiller, supervisor of MCPS Food & Nutrition Services. “If there’s any final cooking or assembly that needs to be done, they’ll do that onsite, but the bulk share of [production operations] is done from my central kitchen.”
Each day’s menu is the same at each site. The prepared food is put in bulk pans that are placed into warming carriers and then delivered by the district’s fleet of three trucks.
“We literally cook everything off of four 80-gallon steam jacketed kettles and two rotating ovens,” explains Rossmiller.
Central production allows efficient preparation of healthy items in bulk, such as scratch-made pizza crusts and pizza sauce. Other bulk product made in the central kitchen includes perennial favorites like “super” nachos, chili and turkey and gravy. There is no cycle menu as such at MCPS except the weekly appearance of pizza on Wednesdays.
“Other than that, the menu is decided upon based on what we have on hand,” Rossmiller explains. “We use a lot of commodities, obviously, so we have to look at what we have on hand and what’s on site and what we can get, and the menu is then planned off of that.”
There is always a main entrée supplemented by the daily option of deli sandwiches (made on site but using bread baked in the central kitchen) and chef’s salads. Chicken sandwiches and PB&J sandwiches are usually also available and one site even offers chicken quesadillas.
“All the schools have a salad bar where you can build a reimbursable meal,” Rossmiller adds.
To provide some ultra-local ingredients to the school meal program, a set of raised beds located just outside the central kitchen produce a variety of crops such as kale, zucchini and onions. The beds are maintained by a local firm called Garden City Harvest, which also works with the individual district schools on their school gardens. This past summer, the central kitchen garden turned out over 5,000 pounds of produce, according to Rossmiller, including enough zucchini to last the whole year in the making of the kitchen’s specialty zucchini bread.
“We also purchase from local producers around here,” Rossmiller remarks. “Of course, the trouble we run into in Montana, obviously, is our growing season because our growing season is during the summer when there’s no school. So, if we can purchase and freeze it, we’ll do that as much as possible. For example, [in late fall], all our apples are purchased from local orchards about 40 miles south of us and we’ll purchase those as long as we can.”
Non-produce items sourced locally include dairy but as of now not proteins like beef and chicken, Rossmiller explains
However, a second production kitchen is currently under construction that should begin to change that.
“Our district is going through a huge bond project and I have a kitchen that’s not even a mile away from my central kitchen that will be built brand new and that has been designed as an extension of my central kitchen,” says Rossmiller. “That kitchen [is being] built with increasing our local usage of beef, chicken and things like that in mind.”
That addition, along with a separate project that has one of the district high schools building its own processing plant for its agricultural department, has her thinking about another step in the local procurement area.
“The end goal once that project and my central kitchen extension are both done is to purchase beef that kids in our district have raised, then process it and use that in our production,” she says. “To me, you can’t get much more local than purchasing beef that is being raised by your own students in your district. That is kind of cool.”
Both construction projects are expected to be finished next summer.