USDA grant yields new equipment, means more from-scratch cooking for Nevada County school lunches | TheUnion.com

USDA grant yields new equipment, means more from-scratch cooking for Nevada County school lunches

Emily Lavin
Staff Writer

Grass Valley School District Child Nutrition Services is beefing up its central kitchen, a move aimed at increasing the amount of from-scratch cooking that can be done in the space.

The department, which serves meals for 19 schools across nine Nevada County school districts, was recently awarded a $100,000 National School Lunch Program Equipment Assistance grant from the United States Department of Agriculture.

The grant is part of more than $3 million the agency earmarked in 2015 to help school food authorities purchase service equipment that will improve food safety, energy efficiency and expand access to healthier meals.

Meal preparation at GVSD Child Nutrition Services's central kitchen, which is located at 900 Golden Gate Terrace, is currently limited to what can be done with two commercial steamer ovens, said Suzanne Grass, the food service director at GVSD Child Nutrition Services. The kitchen also features a walk-in refrigerator and freezer.

The grant will allow the nutrition services department to purchase an additional walk-in refrigerator and freezer, as well as a blast chiller and a range hood for a stove, Grass said.

The USDA has allocated money each year toward the equipment assistance grant program — but the most recent application period, which closed last November, was the first in which GVSD Child Nutrition Services had the space to accommodate additional equipment.

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Last August, the department expanded in its current location, adding 3,000 square feet of food storage space to its current 2,400 square feet of office and kitchen space.

The grant will allow the department to create a more fully functioning kitchen, Grass said.

"The new equipment, along with our expanded space, it's going to expand our ability to do more things in-house, and have more control over (the food served)," she said.

GVSD Child Nutrition services has been limited on what it can actually cook on-site, Grass said, in part by restrictions from state and federal regulations that govern school lunch programs.

Some of the food the department purchases to serve at schools comes through the USDA's commodity program, in which the USDA purchases agricultural commodities and provides the foods at minimal cost to schools that participate in the National School Lunch program.

But before those products get to the department's central kitchen, they usually have to go through a processor — a company that, for instance, turns ground beef into hamburger patties, and ensures each individual portion contains the nutritional values mandated by USDA school lunch guidelines.

The additional kitchen equipment will give the child nutrition services department added flexibility when it comes to food preparation, Grass said. Instead of having USDA commodities diverted to a processor, the department may be able to have it come directly to the kitchen, where food service workers can season it and prepare it how they'd like.

And when the department purchases meat, either from the USDA commodity program or directly with the money it collects from its food programs, the new blast chiller will ensure the products are prepared according to federal safety regulations.

Plus, the increased storage space will give the department the option to increase the amount of fresh produce it receives, because the kitchen will now have more refrigerator space to store it.

Grass said there's no firm plan in place to increase the from-scratch, on-site cooking done by the food services staff by a certain percentage or amount as the new equipment is installed. Instead, those decisions will likely be made on a case-by-case basis after analyzing the cost of certain items and the staff time it will take to prepare them.

But having the option to be more creative with recipes will allow the department to have "a little more pride in what we do, because we're doing it ourselves," Grass said.

Grass said the department hopes to have the new equipment purchased and installed within the next two to three months. She said the revamped kitchen is just one small step toward creating healthier, more satisfying school lunches.

"We still have a lot of work to do, but it's going to give us a nice push financially to not have to purchase that equipment," Grass said.

To contact Staff Writer Emily Lavin, email elavin@theunion.com or call 530-477-4230.

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