Beefing Up Your School Kitchen

Nov. 30, 2010
Don’t get egg on your face with a poorly designed school kitchen.

Whenever a school remodels or undertakes a new construction project, chances are the kitchen is one of the last areas to receive attention. However, pending changes in menu and nutrition requirements and a national discussion on childhood obesity are changing the way we look at kitchens. Kitchens are no longer the unglamorous domain of lunch ladies, but a vital cornerstone of a school's mission that requires long-term planning.

Influences and Complications
Because a kitchen should serve a school for 15 to 40 years, schools are faced with tough decisions when it comes to selecting designs and equipment that will serve their long-term operations. This is exasperated by a lack of awareness about the intricacies of foodservice operations. Many administrators are unaware of the complexities of a school kitchen, mistakenly viewing them as an expanded version of a home kitchen. Additionally, because kitchens are so rarely updated, even the kitchen operators aren't in tune with changes in the industry.

Kitchen designs of the 21st century, and consequently school budgets, are also influenced by several prominent factors:

  • The "Get Moving" childhood obesity campaign initiated by Michelle Obama
  • The "farm to table" movement, which has generated a revival in fresh produce
  • The impact of LEED certification and the green building industry
  • On-site school gardens and the kitchen-as-a-classroom model
  • Improvements in foodservice equipment technology
  • Revisions to building and health codes
  • Ongoing school budget deficits combined with rising labor and food costs

The way foodservice is evolving may present issues to existing kitchens, such as outmoded workflow, equipment, or layout, says Ed Norman, FCSI, and owner of MVP Services Group Inc. This can impair a school's ability to adapt to new food regulations, offer greater menu variety, and respond to increased capacity.

The Benefits of a Kitchen Consultant
To properly navigate kitchen designs, schools should hire a foodservice consultant. Consultants bridge the knowledge and communication gaps among operators, administrators, and architects. "The single most important benefit of professional consultants is they will educate the operator and the design team about foodservice design, equipment, and operations," says Norman.

A consultant's primary function is to coordinate the requests of the kitchen operators, address budget concerns from the administration, and collaborate with the design firm to ensure all kitchen elements are accounted for in the space. These conversations will determine considerations such as the proximity of the delivery dock to the kitchen, what type of shelving is needed, which corridors will be used to transport food products, and how systems are integrated, says Norman. Consultants also bring a level of objectivity to equipment selections, are up to speed on health codes, and evaluate how layout and flow affect workers' productivity.

It is critical that a consultant is brought on board from the onset of a project. "Consultants have a more in-depth understanding of what it takes to plan a project from the early conceptual stages, as opposed to taking out the architectural background and filling in blank space," says Kerry Bowdon, senior associate with Cini-Little. Without a professional's guidance, you may be locking yourself into a design that won't address your school's needs.

The Myth of the Perfect Kitchen
It is no easy feat to design a kitchen for several decades of use, but kitchen consultants are equipped with the industry knowledge to create the best possible space for your site. "Each kitchen operator has their own design requirements, which can drastically affect the design," says Bowden. "But kitchens will change hands over time, even potentially during the design process. A kitchen consultant will plan a kitchen so it translates between current and future operators."

One of the biggest limitations to a kitchen's workability is budget. Schools get into trouble when no budget is specified and then are caught by surprise with unexpected costs. "It's ugly to not have a budget from schools," says Norman. "They'll come in with a list of requests: we want a state-of-the-art kitchen, to maintain or decrease labor costs, and to improve efficiency, energy, and productivity. When they see the price tag for these stipulations, they'll turn around and say they can't meet the budget numbers." Schools must be aware that a kitchen is the most expensive square footage in their facility and plan according.

To identify cost-effective solutions and alleviate budget concerns, consultants need to be a part of budget conversations. This is particularly crucial during planning. Because there is typically a lag between design and construction, many schools don't build in contingencies for price fluctuations, says Norman. While a school may have money now to cover its requests, it may fall short when ground breaks and costs have increased. A foodservice professional will fine tune your budget so it encompasses your kitchen's needs, particularly so it will last for several decades with few to no

A budget area that schools routinely struggle with is energy-efficient improvements. "It's hard for a school to accept the fact that they're going to put up more money up front, even though within a few years they're going to see significant savings," says Bowdon. Energy and water consumption improvements are a no- compromise budget area, particularly as both run high in a school kitchen. Engineered exhaust systems, low-flow water fixtures, and multitasking equipment like combination ovens are great solutions that will lower your utility bill.

Be Prepared
The recently completed Robert F. Kennedy (RFK) Community Schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) consists of six pilot schools. To accommodate the dense concentration of students, the site required two separate kitchens. The K-5 kitchen serves 800 students and the middle-high school cafeteria manages 3,400 students.

During design planning, Gonzalez Goodale Architects and Cini-Little International, the consulting firm, formed a team with the district to design the kitchens. LAUSD provided facility standards, which were crafted by the foodservice department and based on feedback from previous experience. The guidelines included specific equipment lists, required furnishings, and preferred floor plans. LAUSD's level of preparedness helped to clarify the school's needs and provided a clear framework to the design teams.

"Most of the time, schools don't know enough about the big picture. They don't understand the impact of planning and designing a facility, how utilities work, and how everything needs to be coordinated," explains Bowden. "It's helpful to have feedback from operators and an initial schematic plan, but it always needs massaging."

Cini-Little was able to take LAUSD's vision and propel it into reality. "Because the RFK schools had a schematic in place, we provided coordination of construction, utilities, electrical, and structural guidance to ensure the design requirements were properly met," says Bowden.

For example, though several manufacturers were identified for each piece of equipment, some of the selections were outmoded or ineffective for RFK's requirements. Cini-Little reviewed those specifications and redirected the district to more effective equipment choices.

The middle-high school kitchen also faced a delivery dock dilemma. The kitchen is located at a 15-foot elevation above the street level in the middle of campus. While this central location is easier for student access, it complicated the flow of service truck traffic. Cini-Little and Gonzalez Goodale designed onsite ramps to ease the delivery of food products to the compact campus.

Do Your Homework
Like LAUSD, school officials should come to initial design meetings with a clear understanding of their foodservice operations. Do your homework by researching your needs before you meet with consultants and architects. Helpful items to gather include breakfast and lunch menus, number and length of lunch periods, food preparation procedures (e.g. from scratch, cook and chill, or reheating), current student participation levels, enrollment projections, and existing architectural drawings.

Through meetings with your kitchen staff, facility managers, and other administrators, it is also best to identify the following:

  • A preliminary budget
  • Problems with equipment and work flow
  • Proposed solutions to these issues
  • Energy benchmarks and sustainability goals,
    particularly any involving LEED
  • Security concerns

Being prepared will help you remain flexible during the design and construction process. "The main thing is that the facility will be able to produce the meals intended, in the space provided, without having inadequate equipment to accomplish the task," says Norman.

Studies have shown students perform better academically if they take advantage of their school's hot lunch program. Raise the bar for your students – and your facility – by planning for a kitchen that will last several generations.

Jennie Morton ([email protected]) is assistant editor of BUILDINGS.

About the Author

Jennie Morton

A former BUILDINGS editor, Jennie Morton is a freelance writer specializing in commercial architecture, IoT and proptech.

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