Schools’ equipment needs drive Senate bill
Cook Manager Amy Devine doesn’t have a long list when it comes to equipment that could be upgraded in the kitchen she uses each day at Phoenix Elementary School in Grand Forks.
“A new, bigger microwave would be nice,” she said Friday while monitoring lunch lines.
A new commercial microwave starts at around $300 and can run upward of $1,000. It’s small change compared to the quote Grafton (N.D.) Public Schools received for replacing its kitchen equipment in Central Middle School as part of an expansion project.
Superintendent Jack Maus said the bill would be at least $200,000 to replace the equipment.
“We’ll need new ovens, walk-in coolers, basically everything,” he said. “All of the equipment is considerably old.”
The district’s two other schools also are in need of some equipment upgrades.
The wish list for new kitchen equipment ranges from less than $5,000 to more than $100,000 per school across North Dakota and Minnesota, according to a 2012 Pew Charitable Trust report.
The report analyzed results from the nationally administered 2012 Kitchen Infrastructure and Training for Schools Survey.
Based on those results, the organization concluded 74 percent of North Dakota schools needed at least one piece of equipment to serve healthier meals to kids at a price tag totaling about $28 million. In Minnesota, that number is 96 percent with a total upgrade cost of $98.9 million.
A bill introduced Thursday by Sens. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, seeks to provide schools in North Dakota and across the nation with more assistance in securing loans and grants that would help them pay for these upgrades.
“As the daughter of a school cook, I understand the work that goes into preparing many healthy meals each day for kids,” Heitkamp said in a news release. “This bill would help make limited resources stretch as far as possible to provide support to communities that need it in North Dakota.”
The bill, known as the School Food Modernization Act, would accomplish three objectives at no additional cost to the federal government, according to Heitkamp.
The first would be to provide grant assistance to schools to help administrators find money for smaller renovation projects or equipment purchases.
The federal government has made attempts in the past to chip away at school demands. Between 2009 and 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture made $125 million available in the form of one-time equipment grants for schools. It received $630 million in requests from applicants.
The bill also would establish a loan-assistance program within the USDA that would give school access to money for larger-scale projects such as expanding, remodeling or constructing kitchens, dining areas or food storage areas.
North Dakota schools districts included in the KITS survey indicated their most common infrastructure problem was their kitchen space with 27 percent indicating they’d like to have more of it. That number of jumps to 42 percent in Minnesota.
Lastly, the legislation would seek to strengthen training and offer technical help to school food-service employees to assist their school with meeting updated nutrition guidelines.
The Pew study says 100 percent of surveyed North Dakota school districts are meeting the guidelines compared to 93 percent in Minnesota and 86 percent of schools nationwide.
About a quarter of North Dakota schools reported not needing new equipment. The rest have an average kitchen upgrade cost of $18,000 per school.
In Minnesota, that price jumps to $47,000 per school with only 4 percent saying they don’t need equipment. Nationwide, the average cost is $37,000 with only 12 percent of schools reporting new equipment isn’t needed.
New knives came in at the top of the North Dakota survey respondents’ wish list followed by computers, slicers, salad bars and utility carts. Minnesota schools want more serving utensils, food processors, computers, scales and salad bars.
Salad bar equipment is one of the most expensive upgrades for both states. In order to meet the need estimated by the study, North Dakota would have to spend more than $800,000 while Minnesota would spend closer to $5 million.
The argument could be made for repairing some types of equipment, but in Grafton’s case — where items are closing in on 30 years old — Maus said that becomes difficult as the product ages.
As the decades go by, finding parts can become difficult and paying maintenance costs may prove to be less feasible than purchasing equipment.
At 15 years old, Phoenix Elementary’s equipment still is functioning adequately, according to Principal Kevin Ohnstad.
“Most of it is still in great shape,” he said, adding the equipment in Valley Middle School where a portion of the elementary school’s food is prepared daily would likely be in greater need of replacement.
The potential upgrades for North Dakota schools would serve a growing number of students. Participation in the National School Lunch program hit 93,130 this past January — a jump of nearly 8 percent since January of 2013.