No more “mystery meats” or muffins laden with chemical preservatives will be on the menus in the cafeterias of the largest public school system in western Massachusetts.
With students returning to the Springfield Public Schools Monday after spring vacation, operations were scheduled to ratchet up at the school department’s new $21 million Culinary and Nutrition Center, which will supply freshly made foods for more than 20,000 students each day.
School Superintendent Dan Warwick said Springfield is thought to be the first public school system in the country to have its own centralized facility where school breakfast and lunch menu items are made, packaged, and shipped out to each of the city’s schools to be served the same day.
"What we are going to be able to do is put out the best possible product, a nutritious breakfast and lunch and even dinners in some schools for our kids s that is second-to-none in the entire country," said Warwick.
The 62,000 square foot center has a large commercial kitchen for preparing soups, sauces and roasting meats. There is a refrigerated processing room, a bakery, and large freezer.
Students should definitely notice the difference, according to Tim Gray, the Springfield Public School Department’s food services administrator.
" The processed muffin, I will use as an example, the ingrediants list I can't even pronounce half the words on there. The incrediants list for the muffin we are going to serve to our students now is like eight basic ingrediants," explained Gray. " The quality is going to increase 100 percent."
Food produced at the new center even has its own brand: “Home Grown Springfield” and a logo designed by TaMya Romero, a senior at Springfield’s Putnam Vocational Technical High School.
The center was developed in collaboration with Sodexo, which has a 10-year contract to provide in-school meals. It also prepares food for a free summer meals program at parks and playgrounds throughout the city.
Planning for the culinary center began about a decade ago. Gray said the schools were looking for a way to support a growing demand for better tasting and more nutritious school menu items.
"Presently we partner with 15 farms in the Pioneer Valley and we are hoping to take those products we buy during the growing season and flash freeze them to use throughout the year, even in the winter months," explained Gray.
Over the last few years, the Springfield schools launched a districtwide initiative to serve breakfast in every homeroom in every school. Since the advent of the breakfast-in-the-classroom program, mid-morning visits to school nurses have fallen by 90 percent.
Praising the new food services center at a ribbon-cutting event, Elizabeth Willis-O’Gilvie, the chair of the Springfield Food Policy Council, said students can’t learn if they are hungry.
"We are talking about this in terms of food, but it is really about literacy and it is really about eradicating poverty," said Willis-O'Gilvie.
The new food center created 40 new jobs.