Senior Staff Writer
Measurements were taken in Marshall County school kitchens last week as the food service director took another step toward serving food that's baked instead of deep-fried.
Convection ovens are to be installed where deep fryers are now. Baking will cost less because the ovens use less electricity and the school lunch program won't have to buy as much cooking oil.
Then there's the fact that baked food is better for you.
"We are working to provide healthier and more nutritious meals for our children," County Schools Director Jackie Abernathy said Friday with Larissa Delk, the schools' food service director.
"I like French fries, but I realize I could eat better, too," Abernathy said.
Convection ovens circulate hot air around French fries to create the crunchy exterior and the soft warm interior without grease.
"Frying adds fat and calories," Delk said.
"Chicken and anything you can fry, we'll be baking and steaming," she said. "Plus, we'll be providing more fresh fruit."
Switching from frying to baking and steaming has nothing to do with the recently announced price hike in school lunches, Delk said. The price hikes were imposed to comply with federal budgeting requirements for school lunch programs.
Meanwhile, baking cuts costs and helps the system meet federal guidelines to encourage diets that avoid obesity.
"These guys spend over $100 a month on oil," according to Holly Lawson of Hotel and Restaurant Supply Co., the business that's removing the fryers, selling the ovens and installing them. That monthly cost applies to just one school.
The ovens cost about $4,000 to $5,000 each, Lawson said.
Cost savings on cooking oil might pay for an oven at each school in a few years, she agreed.
The system's food service program budgeted $80,000 for the ovens, Delk said.
By law, school lunch program budgets must be separate from the rest of the school budget. The program is funded by money children pay for meals and a federal subsidy.
"To better meet the guidelines of the Healthy and Hunger Free Kids Act of Congress," Abernathy said, "we are removing the deep fat fryers from all the schools ... and replacing them with baking ovens."
She and Delk explained that federal law does not require the switch from deep-fried food to baked food. It's recommended.
However, Delk points out, "The students must take a fruit (to be eaten with their school meal) for it to be a reimbursable meal."
What can school cafeteria workers do to make students eat fruit?
"By making it more appealing," Delk replied.
Changes to school lunches are part of the budget-balancing act that Delk faces each year.
"Fruit and vegetables cost more," she said. "Most are fresh. Some are frozen."
Fresh food comes from Palmer Foodservice in Shelbyville, she said. The frozen food is delivered by Gordon Food Service of Shepherdsville, Ky.
Reducing the use of cooking oil in a deep fryer also reduces time and work for cafeteria employees.
"They have to dispose of the used oil and clean the deep fryer," Lawson said.
Oil can be reused only so much.
The convection ovens are made in America by a manufacturer with plants in Missouri and North Carolina, Lawson said.
A deep fryer holds 40-50 pounds of frying oil. The well is about 30 inches deep and 14-16-inches wide, she said.
Convection ovens are about 38 inches across and 30 inches front to back.
"You slide an exact-sized pan into it," she said.
Lawson and Delk went from one school to another on Friday when Lawson realized what cafeteria workers face.
"One lady here cooks 600 meals a day," Lawson said, speaking from the cafeteria phone in Cornersville. "We're providing them with the tools to do that.
"Part of our contract with the school system is installation."
Installation is to be completed by the time classes start next month for the 2012-13 school year.
"Instead of white bread, we've gone to whole grains," Delk said of a step taken during the 2011-12 school year.
"Next year, they will look at sodium," she said of the on-going examination of the school lunch program by regulations developed as a result of congressional action.