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Head Start Central Kitchen Initiative


Main Components

Involve stakeholders and key players early in the planning process: The Salt Lake Community Action Program administrative structure includes several boards and councils that provided guidance and feedback during the planning process. Parents participated as members of the Head Start Policy Committee. Administrators built support for the kitchen by reaching out to key leaders and stakeholders. Community businesses supported construction of the kitchen and government agencies, such as city departments of health, fire, and planning, were consulted early in the process. Planners sought input from CACFP officials and food distributors. The Head Start program director and health manager served as champions for the initiative and visited a number of central kitchens.

Develop a business plan:  Estimate expenses and sources of funding to cover expenses. Expenses include staff to operate the kitchen, the building or leasing/renovating of kitchen space, developing menus, and purchasing equipment.  Menus should be developed before determining what kitchen equipment will be needed. External funding sources (not including CACF) are grants, donations from private businesses and individuals and fundraisers.  The kitchen was planned as and continues to be self-sufficient and sustainable. It does not rely on monetary donations to function.

Choose a site: The Central Kitchen, housed in a former production bakery, was renovated to meet health, fire and building codes. The kitchen space is approximately 4,890 square feet; seven full-time staff work in the kitchen, and prepare and deliver 3,000 meals a day to Head Start classrooms.

Hire an experienced food service director: SLCAP Head Start hired a food service professional with experience in the business side of running a food enterprise as large as the Central Kitchen. The food service director has to be knowledgeable about food service, meal prep, and operating a large kitchen. For the Central Kitchen to be revenue-neutral, the food service director must be able to control inventory, ordering and costs. Equally important, the food service director should have culinary training as a chef, with the skills to prepare foods that are low in fat, sugar, and salt and that taste good.

Develop cycle menus and standardized recipes: SLCAP Head Start Central Kitchen adopted its own best practices for healthy eating that specified preparing meals from scratch. The Central Kitchen uses fresh fruits and vegetables and organic or local products, when available. The kitchen places a strong emphasis on nutrient-dense foods and beverages, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-fat milk products, seafood, lean meats and poultry in daily menus. Menu options include culturally and ethnically diverse ingredients that help broaden a child’s food experience. Recipes were developed by the chef and approved by a registered dietician who conducted a caloric and nutrient analysis of foods. Staff and parents provided feedback to the chef and menus were adjusted as appropriate. A minimum of four cycle menus meeting CACFP portion requirements were developed. A cycle menu is a series of menus planned for a particular period of time, for example 4 weeks. The menu varies for each day of the cycle. At the end of the cycle the menus are repeated.

Select a food service distributor (purveyor): The Central Kitchen selected a distributor who made a commitment to provide food that meets the SLCAP Head Start best practices and, when possible, purchase local foods that are within the program’s food cost requirements. Most of the food comes from Utah and nearby states, Idaho and Colorado. The chef estimates that 75% of the food served is local. To control food cost, the food service distributor provides the chef access to a database of daily quoted prices that provides real-time cost estimates of the food items for a given menu before a purchase order is issued. This allows the chef to negotiate food pricing which is essential if the Kitchen is be revenue-neutral. Throughout the school year, the director of food service acquires a number of food procurement bids to ensure that the Central Kitchen obtains the fair market rate for products purchased.

Train central kitchen staff: To ensure that kitchen operations are not interrupted, staff members are cross-trained to perform different duties, so if one person is not able to work, another person, trained to do the job, fills in. The chef trains line cooks to prepare foods that are low in fat, sugar, and salt.

Develop systems for data tracking and reporting to CACFP and other agencies: CACFP reimbursement provides 86% of the Central Kitchen’s annual operating budget. SLCAP met early on with local CACFP representatives to ensure that during the development stage of the project all required CACFP documentation was considered and could be included when systems were implemented. As part of the data tracking and CACFP compliance, everything from cycle menus to transportation sheets were taken into account. The nutrition assistant is responsible for both the CACFP-required documentation and for tracking Central Kitchen cycle menus developed with the chef and any adjustments to the production plan.  Collaboration between the nutrition assistant and the chef are integral to the overall success of the program.  Ordering of product in bulk allows the Central Kitchen cost savings to be passed along to clients, which is a great incentive. 

Conduct a pilot phase to test your systems before production is increased: During the renovation of the building that would house the kitchen, staff members conducted a pilot test (300 meals per day) in a church kitchen. Staff used this time to develop systems for tracking data and reporting to CACFP, conducting taste tests of food items and trying out menus. Additionally, they developed and tested kitchen operating procedures related to food purchasing, production, and handling any special dietary requests.

  • Food preparation
    Half of the staff works the opening shift. Food is prepped the preceding day, allowing staff to begin cooking the first thing in the morning. After the meal deliveries leave the Central Kitchen, the remaining staff begin clean up and prep work for the next day’s menu items.
  • Packing food for delivery
    Central Kitchen developed on time and at temperature meal delivery procedures for packing and safely transporting hot and cold foods to meet the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) protocols. To meet the at temperature requirement, hot and cold meals are prepared and packed in cambros (commercial-grade food containers) to retain temperature. All hot food items are warmed to 160 degrees; cambros allow only a one-degree drop in temperature each hour, keeping food within the food safety zone until it is served and eaten. CACFP rules require on time delivery of food or else reimbursement is withheld. To meet on time requirements, Central Kitchen created a tracking system that recorded the time food came out of the oven or heater and was packed for delivery. Delivery is documented with a teacher’s signature, the date and time. A time control transportation sheet documents the time food is received and the sheet is returned to the Central Kitchen at the end of the month. Head Start classroom staff are responsible for accepting the food and putting it in the appropriate storage area. Cold food items are placed in a refrigerator to maintain the food at a safe temperature of 5° C (41°F) or below. Hot food items are kept in the cambros until time to serve the food.
  • Food delivery and container/plate pick up
    The line cooks also serve as the drivers. Because the cambros are used for hot and cold food, refrigerated trucks are not needed. The delivery staff make all their drops, then return to the Central Kitchen to take over prep work of the next day’s food. Later the drivers pick up the dirty dishes, cambros and deliver afternoon snack and the next day’s breakfast. In an effort to be environmentally friendly, paper products such as plates, bowls, etc. are not used. The used plates and food containers are washed for use the next day.

Create a supportive environment that promotes healthy eating: Head Start does not allow teachers to bring food into the classrooms; they must eat what the children eat and are expected to model healthy eating. Meals are served modified family style where the teacher serves the food to each child from main dishes. The Health Department does not allow children to serve food. The classroom staff serve the children full portions of all CACFP meal components using a spoodle for portion control. The teachers talk about the food items that day and encourage the children both by example and verbally to try something new. To be successful, everyone has to buy into the process, including the teachers.

Parents are role models for eating healthy food through the Volunteer in the Classroom program. They eat lunch and complete evaluation forms about what they ate (parent food comment card). Central Kitchen staff use the forms to look for issues and for recipes that parents would like the kitchen to try, particularly cultural dishes.

Central Kitchen offers cooking classes for parents. The Sauté culinary training program gives Head Start parents the opportunity to learn how to cook healthier foods. Additionally, the chef provides training for the ServSafe® Food Handler examination, which is necessary for food handler certification. This certification increases opportunities for employment in a food service company. Sauté operates three sessions per year, classes consist of 40 hours of instruction and are completed in six weeks. About 80% of graduates who look for a job have been successful as a result of cooking class participation. About one in six parents take the course to learn how to cook for their families. About five of six want to get a job in the food industry. The classes graduate 8-10 parents every three months, and maintain a waiting list of future participants. Donations from corporations pay for the culinary training program. 

Keys to Success

  • Central Kitchen collaborates with Utah Juvenile Justice Services Genesis Youth Center, a residential work camp program for youthful offenders. Youth, ages 14-18, wash dishes, mop and sweep floors and older kids help pack the cambros and serve as food handlers. This is an in-kind donation ($18/hr) to the kitchen. Two groups of youth work every day, one in the morning and one at the end of the day. This adds up to about 700-800 hours/month. The Central Kitchen food service director thinks other groups replicating this initiative may need something similar to offset some of the labor costs of running a large kitchen. 
  • In-kind donations are essential to the kitchen’s successful operation; they range from labor to food (for some foods, the kitchen pays less than market rate, and the difference is considered an in-kind contribution.) 

Barriers to Implementation

  • Meeting health department regulations for delivering food at safe temperatures. Central Kitchen accomplished this by purchasing insulated boxes (cambros) that hold food temperature with a 1-degree drop per hour.
  • Responding to special dietary requests, e.g., food allergies. Central Kitchen developed a system with four checks before the food is served to the child. The first check entails accommodation of the food allergy and ensures that the product purchased is comparable to food on the menu. Each morning, following preparation of food, one individual is responsible for the second check, which is packing the meals that accommodate food allergies. The third check is the responsibility of the line cook driver who delivers the meals to the identified sites. Once the food is delivered to the classroom, the classroom team (teachers and/or family advocates) ensures that the final meal accommodates the child’s identified food needs. This would be the final check prior to the food being served. 
  • Engaging teachers to be positive role models for eating healthy food that is being served family style in the classroom. Some teachers have never eaten some of the food being served (ex. real fish instead of fish sticks).
  • Food waste. Central Kitchen developed a policy that said how long a new food would be tested for acceptability by the children and what was acceptable food waste. New foods are introduced at least three times before they are removed from the menu.