Posted on 05/28/2010 at 12:51:54 PM by Student BloggerBy: Rebecca K.
Ten miles away from the American Society for Nutrition (ASN) office stands the Central Production Facility (CPF) for Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS). The CPF prepares and distributes all foods for MCPS. It is the largest facility of its kind on the East Coast, has 840 employees (including a full-time mechanic), and is within MCPS—the largest school district in Maryland and 16th largest in the country. I recently went on a tour of the CPF with other ‘stakeholders' (e.g. moms, environmental activists, nutritionists).
Before going on a tour, we were told why the 58,000 square foot CPF, built in 1993, exists. This boiled down to safety (e.g. the entire facility is cool to prevent bacterial growth), uniformity in preparation, and expense (e.g. keep labor costs down by not having workers in each individual school). The CPF is an abnormally large caterer for MCPS and not a nutrition educator.
At one point we were told to be careful; do not step in the pit. In this large room, some [hot] foods are prepared for later school eating. Today's (a Friday) macaroni and cheese would be eaten Monday or Tuesday. Large metal vats of boiling water and ‘cheese sauce' hung down into a pit. A crane squeaked across the ceiling dropping a colander-like object down into the boiling water that then pulled up noodles that got dumped into the cheese sauce. After swimming around in cheese sauce, the noodles will get sucked down through the bottom of the vat that was in the pit itself and through a large industrial metal tube that would transfer it to plastic bags. The plastic bags would then be sent up the conveyor belt at the end of the pit to be cooled; later, contents of these bags are emptied by hand into individual portions into the prepared ‘hot-packs' delivered to schools. Here again, was more nearly obsolete machinery and plastic.
It is because of this process of heating and cooling and bags that the vegetables provided to MCPS schools are pretty limited to frozen corn, green beans, and carrots; for most other vegetables would turn to mush after being cooked as a result of being stuffed into a bag while hot and then rapidly cooled. And frankly, other vegetables that may not turn to mush (e.g. broccoli) do not taste good after cooking by dry heat.
A [hot] main course, like the macaroni and cheese we saw or chicken nuggets from a processor (a side note: knifes, even plastic ones, are banned from schools, which is one of the reasons why finger-foods, like chicken nuggets, are pervasive in school food), is platted under assembly-line fashion into a two-compartment PET container. In the other compartment goes a vegetable: green beans, baked beans, French fries and so on. These hot-pack containers are covered with 350 degree F Mylar and subsequently, stored in a 28 degree chamber. Here they sit ready alongside other foods (e.g. bladders of Kung Pao sauce and fruit in gelatin) to be put on one of fifteen trucks to MCPS schools. At schools, foods are refrigerated and then re-heated not in a school's kitchen, for many do not have “kitchens,” but its “re-warming station.”
…to be continued.