By MARINA WATERS
When Donna Mauk, the satellite kitchen manager at Lamar Elementary, makes her way through the school’s kitchen, she passes the dishwasher, double oven and rows of stainless steal equipment. It’s all used on a daily basis (save the deep fryer that’s yet to be removed and hasn’t been used since before stricter food regulations were put in place). But should a piece of that equipment go out, the entire kitchen’s routine can be thrown off-kilter.
Lamar was built in the ‘90s and thus contains equipment that is still in relatively good shape according to Mauk. But that’s not the case at every school. While one school’s dishwasher might be out, another’s oven isn’t cooking evenly. These equipment needs, as mentioned in previous school board meetings, are the biggest struggle for the food service department according to Director of Schools Bill Flanary. What are the needs of the Washington County School System’s kitchens? And what action is being taken to combat those needs?
The tools to do the work
No matter if the power goes out or the freezer temperature start to rise in Lamar’s kitchen, Mauk and her staff can still anticipate a group of kindergarten-through-eighth graders lined up in the cafeteria as the sun comes up.
“We figure it out,” Mauk said, standing in the cafeteria kitchen after the last group of students have cleared out of the cafeteria. “You have to come up with ways to figure things out. Whether we’re ready or not, at 7:45 they’re going to be here to eat breakfast. And at 10:45 they’re going to start back for lunch. So it just depends on the day, what you’re cooking and just the challenge of making sure that you have everything done in a timely manner.”
Mauk said she and her staff have been pretty lucky with the equipment at Lamar, but that currently, the dishwasher hasn’t been holding temperature, which will mean the school system’s maintenance department will have to pay a visit to try to repair the machine.
Each of Washington County’s schools comes with its own set of struggles, but for some schools, some struggles will remain until money can be put towards equipment replacements. And that’s what makes equipment the top struggle for the school system’s kitchens, Flanary explained.
“At Boone we have some original equipment (still being used) and that school opened in ’71,” Flanary said. “Some of it is sitting there and hasn’t been used in years because it’s broken. Phillip Patrick, our maintenance supervisor, will have a man take a part somewhere and they’ll say, ‘What is this? Is it an antique? This doesn’t exist anymore. We can’t get this.’”
So why aren’t these outdated pieces of equipment replaced? Flanary said it’s because many of those items aren’t as costly as the school system’s other capital improvement needs.
“The items that food service needs are not so costly that we would go to the county commission and ask for capital improvement money,” Flanary said.”They are $2,000 and $3,000 items where we need a $300,000 roof somewhere. We’re not going to go ask for an oven that costs $3,000.”
Meanwhile, Washington County Schools Food Service Director Caitlin Shew feels that having an equipment replacement schedule could help with aging equipment.
“Just like with the buses, you’ve got to have plans in place to replace (equipment) pretty often and that is the same with school lunch equipment,” Shew said. “We don’t have (requirements from the state on when equipment has to be replaced). That is something I think needs to be implemented.”
Others feel it’s a sign that times have changed.
In the school board’s Jan. 24 called meeting to discuss 2018’s audit, Phillip McLain said he felt there’s been a change in the amount of revenue the school system’s food service department has earned in recent years.
“Years ago food service bought all their own vehicles to transport food in. They had tons of money back in those days. But with all the things we went through the last few years, it just ate up all the profit that was there,” McLain said. “I think it’s just increased food costs (that have taken a toll on food service revenue). We always hate to increase costs to the students so a lot of times we just sort of absorbed it and it got out of balance, which is why we spent some money to get some of this equipment here recently.”
In November, the board voted to take almost $80,000 in fund balance reserve dollars to put towards food service equipment needs. At that meeting, Shew came before the Washington County Board of Education with a lengthy list of needs. Shew’s list came in at $152,979.62 (her second option list came in at $158,038.88) and included items such as three ovens, a heated pass-thru cabinet, an ice machine, a reach-in refrigerator, a reach-in freezer, and multiple hot wells among other food service items.
“When the money was there for these types of replacements, the need wasn’t there,” Shew explained. “And then food costs went up, the prices of the school lunches increased, labor was still high — all those factors kept expenses high and revenue not being high enough dwindled that excess money that could have been used to make those purchases. And when we needed to replace equipment, the money wasn’t there. So it was just that evolution.”
The story of aging school facilities in the Washington County School System has also played into the operations of the schools’ food service.
While the cafeteria at Boones Creek Elementary and Middle won’t replace some of its older equipment due to the new Boones Creek K-8 school that is scheduled to open in August of 2019, the same can’t be said for Jonesborough Elementary and Jonesborough Middle schools.
When asked what the main concern was for the entire food service department, Shew and Flanary both agreed it would be the need for a freezer at Jonesborough Middle School.
Currently, the Jonesborough Middle School freezer is not operating, thus, the school is storing its food in the central freezer located near the bus garage in Jonesborough. However, that freezer is outdated, Flanary said, and has its own set of problems.
“It leaks cold air, it’s inefficient and it’s time to do something with it,” Flanary said. “These freezers and refrigerators don’t last forever, as much as we’d like them to. They get old and worn out, they’re inefficient and they’re wasting energy.”
Shew said she felt the freezer is the most crucial need for Washington County’s food service due to the amount of money that goes into the food being held in such freezers.
“A freezer holding a couple thousand dollars worth of food to me is a lot bigger than a hot well not working in a service line,” Shew said. “That (freezer) is housing everything, all your money. Until that food goes into a student’s belly, that’s money. It’s very important to keep it at the right temperature.”
The decreased storage space also serves as a hold back when it comes to food shipment orders. When the county school system needs more of an item, such as chicken, Shew explained, it typically comes in a pallet shipment from a food source like Sysco in Knoxville. That requires the school system to have storage space available for those large shipments. Flanary said, for now, the system is making due until they can house all its food locally.
“It’s a little known fact that we actually rent freezer space in Knoxville,” Flanary said. “We don’t have enough capacity here locally. When we need a large shipment of something, (Sysco will) pallet it up and bring truck loads of it up. But we’d like to get away from that. We’d like to not have our food stored 100 miles from here. We’d like to have it here handy. So that’s a big challenge — storage.”
While it wouldn’t be cost effective to put a new freezer at Jonesborough Middle School should the building not be utilized for a yet-to-be-approved Jonesborough K-8 school project, the school system still needs a new freezer. To combat that problem, Flanary is hoping to see two freezers placed at the upcoming Boones Creek School.
“There are some big purchases (that have to be made at the new school), I think crushed rock for a roadbed out there is one of them. They don’t know how much that will entail so (the architect) won’t commit the funding for that yet, but we’re hoping that we’ll have about $150,000 to put a central freezer there. It’ll handle every school in the school system.”
While the school system awaits recently purchased items such as a heated pass-thru cabinet and conventional ovens, they’re also waiting for an answer on where to place those two new freezers. In the meantime, Shew said the schools’ food service is not focusing on the needs of the school system and instead is remaining dedicated to serving Washington County students — with or without improved equipment.
“I like to say you can help us make this thing better and help make things easier for our staff,” Shew said, “but every day these women are going to get out of their beds, they’re going to come to that school and they’re going to serve kids whether you help us with that freezer or not. We’re going to make sure kids are fed. I don’t want people to lose sight of that.
“Our focus is not the equipment. Our focus is not any of that stuff. Whether we’re getting up and making them peanut butter jellies or ham and cheeses, we’re going to make sure they’re fed and that they know they care about them.”
For local kitchen managers such as Mauk at Lamar and Brenda Cicirello at Boones Creek Elementary, no matter what surprises, malfunctions or issues arise, they’re going to be in a Washington County kitchen looking for an opportunity to make a difference in a student’s day.
“I just love my job. I love what I do,” Cicirello said. “I can’t imagine not being able to do what I do. If I had to go back to the floor, I’d go back because I can do what I love to do on the floor. I would. I try because we can make a difference here. We really can.”