WDAY: The News Leader

Published December 11, 2011, 09:13 AM

Lunchrooms get a makeover in new Duluth schools

Duluth, MN -- The school district’s Red Plan is turning kitchens and eating spaces into something more modern, comfortable and suitable for grabbing a quick midday meal.

By: Jana Hollingsworth, Duluth News Tribune,

It’s lunch time, and the Denfeld High School cafeteria resembles a busy mall food court, with students clustered around booths and tables high and low stretching to a bank of windows at the far end of the room.

The space is a definite departure from cafeterias past, especially for Denfeld. Gone are the long, banquet-style tables, darkened interiors and endless lines.

“This feels more free and less like a jail,” Denfeld freshman Cassie Mahlberg said Wednesday. “The light helps.”

The Duluth school district’s Red Plan is turning kitchens and eating spaces into something more modern, comfortable and suitable for grabbing a quick midday meal.

The five schools that opened this year under the long-range facilities plan show the most notable differences — each with completely new kitchens that come with enviable ovens, efficient dishwashers, walk-in freezers and coolers and more space. The high schools each have a giant tilting skillet that will allow for new menu items such as stir-fry.

“It’s more than we ever could have hoped for,” said Pam Bowe, child nutrition supervisor for the district. “As we get more comfortable using all of the equipment … (staff) can really show off their talents.”

The old kitchens often had balky equipment, sometimes in need of repair, such as convection ovens that reached temperatures independent of what was set on the dial.

“You did what you had to do,” Bowe said.

Kitchen employees had intensive training this summer to learn how to use the new equipment.

“I’ve never worked with some of this equipment, and I’ve worked in restaurants throughout my career,” said Kathie Johnson, satellite kitchen manager at Piedmont Elementary.

Once learned, she said, the business of cooking breakfast and lunch for students has become much easier. Because of the efficiencies, there is more time to wash, peel and chop fruits and vegetables and cook food just before each group of students arrives.

At Denfeld and East high schools, students enter the kitchen area and disperse to various serving lines, including lines for a main entree, for pizza and for subs. They choose fruits and vegetables from a couple of locations before paying. Kitchen staff members at Denfeld, where there are two lunch periods, have timed how long it takes to move 300 students through the serving area. They’ve got it down to about 12 minutes.

“That’s huge, for kids to be able to get their food and get their table and sit down and eat,” said JoAnn Norman, cafeteria manager at Denfeld. “The less time they spend in a line, the better.”

More time to eat

At Piedmont Elementary, which, like Lester Park and Laura MacArthur is a brand-new school, students form two lines instead of one to receive their meals. After they pick it up, students are faced with a two-sided buffet of fruits and vegetables. They spoon up their own.

“They see what they can have,” Johnson said. “They can get it themselves, and I think that’s what’s doing it. Kids take more vegetables; they’re eating more fruit. I’ve never seen that much go.”

One day last week Piedmont students could add peapods, carrots, grapes, apples, bananas, cucumbers and strawberries to their lunch of a hot ham and cheese sandwich and chicken noodle soup. The garbage cans appeared to hold more ham and cheese sandwiches than fruits and veggies.

Kids are trying new things, Principal Cher Obst said.

“The food looks more appealing the way it is set up,” she said.

The lines of two also allow for better flow, and they prevent bottlenecks so students have more time to eat, she said.

Second-grader Cooper McClure likes the wall of windows in the cafeteria.

“I can see my friends play,” he said, as recess goes on for one group outside the cafeteria while another eats inside.

Kitchen employees are especially excited about the ovens, which bake, broil, roast and steam “to perfection,” Johnson said, with zero tinkering.

“I can’t even explain how well it works,” she said, giving steamed broccoli and grilled cheese as examples. “They always have fresh, good-looking food. And that’s really important to me.”

The schools used to have their food cooked at the former Lincoln Park elementary and Central High School and shipped over daily. Now each new school has the equipment and space to cook for their students.

Lowell and Homecroft elementary schools also have some updated kitchen equipment and more storage, and Bowe hopes food service can eventually buy modern ovens for Lakewood and Stowe schools. The food service program operates its own budget separate from the school district’s general fund.

Pumpkin dip and zucchini strips

Lunch menus haven’t changed much, but the district is trying new and healthier things, and it is participating in a monthly farm-to-school program. Kohlrabi, pumpkin dip and zucchini strips have been tried, along with some other Minnesota-grown produce. The district already has used up more than half of its federal Department of Defense Fresh Fruit and Vegetable program allotment for the year, Bowe said, because there is more space in some of the schools to display and store such food.

On average, about half of Denfeld’s student population eats hot lunch each day, and a quarter to a third eat breakfast.

Most older students are still choosing to leave campus during lunch, Denfeld senior Heather Townsend said.

She eats lunch at school because she doesn’t want to walk in the cold.

“It’s warm in here and there’s food. Why not use it?” she said.

And while she likes the kitchen and food-choice set-up, she prefers Denfeld’s original cafeteria because of its enclosed feel.

“It’s not as controlled as it could be,” she said of the new space. “There are so many exits, stairways and random hallways. It’s too open.”

Several younger students said they liked the open setting with its variety of seating.

“It reminds me of the food court more than a school cafeteria, which is nice,” said sophomore Katlyn Persch.

The number of students eating in the Denfeld cafeteria continues to grow, Norman said.

“The word is getting out on what we offer,” she said. “So instead of going down the street, they are coming here.”