For North Dakota schools, efficient kitchen equipment is a must, educators say
LARIMORE, N.D.--For lunch on Tuesday, Larimore elementary students stopped by the salad bar before piling meatballs onto their plates. For several schools, a salad bar for their youngest students isn't a big deal. But for the first time in Larimo...
LARIMORE, N.D.-For lunch on Tuesday, Larimore elementary students stopped by the salad bar before piling meatballs onto their plates.
For several schools, a salad bar for their youngest students isn't a big deal. But for the first time in Larimore, students have access to more fresh vegetables every day, thanks to serving units bought by the school last year, Superintendent Roger Abbe said.
Kitchen equipment may be one of the last items school districts consider at budget time, but it also affects every single student in a school, one cook said. Efficient kitchen equipment is necessary to feed thousands of hungry students throughout North Dakota, where U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., has supported modernizing equipment to meet new, healthier standards for meals.
Last year, Heitkamp's office cited a 2014 study that found 74 percent of state districts need at least one piece of new kitchen equipment, and more than one third of the districts need changes in kitchen infrastructure in at least one school. According to The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, $28.1 million worth of food service equipment is needed in the state to better serve healthy foods.
Throughout the region, some school administrators and cooks had a varying response: Some schools could use updates, others were fine and some could simply benefit from more space.
In Grand Forks, South Middle School is nearly ready to replace some ovens, said Emily Karel, director of the district's child nutrition program. The equipment has not been updated since 1999, when the school was rebuilt. Ovens last about 15 to 20 years, she said.
"When our equipment isn't updated, we run into more maintenance issues, which slows down our day," she said. "If we needed the oven for three sets of chicken nuggets, maybe we can only get two through. (Then) we just kind of change our schedule throughout the day."
For now, the ovens work fine, but if the district waits another 10 years to replace it, that could be pushing it, she said.
In Manvel, elementary students start the lunch process in the school's main hallway and wind downstairs to a gym to eat.
One by one, first-graders lined up Tuesday for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches served in the kitchen, which is across from the school office. Then they walked a short distance to the salad bar, offered twice a week, in a separate room.
A lack of space is the main problem for school lunches here.
"We can't offer a big selection like they would in a large school," Superintendent Richard Ray said.
Homemade chicken noodle soup and salad sat on student trays as Vicki Lofthus, the sole school cook for 27 years, stood at the end of the bar and served their favorite: mandarin oranges.
Despite the small kitchen she works in, she can still create healthy homemade meals, she said.
She prepares all of the main entrees herself for 160 students. Once a year, she also prepares food for and serves 140 people for a special breakfast.
"It's a little school, but it's a big job," said Ray.
In Langdon, Superintendent Mark Mindt said the district could update its steam cookers to transport food between schools, add a commercial freezer and buy more lunch trays. No major problems have happened because of a lack of nonfunctioning equipment, he said.
However, with a large number of students served daily-the district has 389 students-anything that can be done to support the process is welcome, he said.
"That time for cooking and prep and serving, that's such a crucial time," he said.