The Chandler Unified School District is doing a lot of extra baking this spring as it prepares for a seven-month closing of its central kitchen starting in June.
“This facility was built in 1992 and it really hasn’t been updated since then in any shape or form,” said Jenny Bracamonte, the school district’s director of food and nutrition. “Much of our equipment is at end of life.”
The CUSD Governing Board recently approved spending about $82,000 to purchase new industrial meat slicer and a unifiller – a device that allows them to package large quantities of product (dressing, salsa, etc.) in whatever containers they need.
Bracamonte said they will begin removing the older equipment and taking out the flooring in June. She said the plan is for upgrades to the building and the new equipment to be installed by December. She expects the total cost to replace the kitchen equipment to come to $1.7 million.
“We are updating this facility to where the district is now,” Bracamonte said. “When this facility was built, we had like 12 schools. And now we have 47. Our meals per day, I can’t give you accurate figures from back then, but I would say probably between 7,000-to-10,000 meals a day, and now we do 40,000 meals a day.”
They started baking early for the next school year, beginning mainly with muffins in March.
“We want to continue to deliver to our kids the experience that they’re used to,” Bracamonte said. “A part of that is scratch-baking, and homemade sauces, so we’re trying to get ahead of that production a little bit.”
She said they are making 15,000 muffins a day, hoping to build a surplus of at least 200,000. But it’s not just muffins that they are making now for next fall. Bracamonte said they’re also making smoothie mix, marinara sauce, and taco meat.
“Things that we normally make in our kettle or bakery will totally be fine if they’re frozen for six months,” she said.
She said staff and students will have to adjust because of the central kitchen closure. For example, now Bracamonte’s department make their own ranch dressing. Next fall they will likely use ranch dressing purchased from a vendor.
Bracamonte said none of the current central kitchen employees will lose time at work because of the improvements. Instead of coming to the central kitchen, most will work out of the kitchens at individual schools. That’s where a lot of the work preparing food for school children will shift while the new equipment is installed.
The central kitchen facility will still be available because the large freezer is located there. That’s where most of the muffins they’re making now will be stored.
“Chandler is blessed to have this facility, because many districts don’t have the storage that we do,” Bracamonte said.
Some of the new equipment should improve efficiency. Instead of a worker filling in cupcake batter one at a time, a machine will do multiple muffins at the same time. Instead of a worker spreading sauce on the 1,500 pizzas they make every week, they’ll have a machine that does that.
Bracamonte said the automation won’t lead to any job loss, it will just allow them to repurpose employees to other roles.
“It’s a whole new day in food service,” Bracamonte said.