Scottsdale Schools eyes implementing ‘central kitchen’ concept

The Oak Street campus is at 7501 E. Oak Street in Scottsdale. (photo by Melissa Fittro)

Scottsdale school officials believe they can provide better quality school lunches — and potentially make a profit in the process — to students within the Scottsdale Unified School District and the city at large.

Speaking at a May 4 study session, Superintendent Dr. Denise Birdwell presented the governing board with an initial proposal for one large kitchen that would serve the entire district.

Officials contend a centralized kitchen would have two key benefits:

  • It could cut out prepackaged preservatives in cafeteria food, since a district kitchen would be able to prepare fresh food daily and transport it to each of the 29 schools in the district;
  • It could make money for the district. Not only will expenses be reduced, but the centralized kitchen could possibly expand its services and provide food outside the district — to charter and private schools.

The central kitchen idea was first proposed during the planning of seven elementary school rebuilds following a $229 million bond voters passed in November 2016. When looking at addressing the remodel of seven elementary schools, officials began to look at hybrid options.

“In a district this size, why is there not a central kitchen?” Dr. Birdwell asked of her nutrition services department. “I had visited the catering kitchen and saw how small it was. We fix multiple meals.”

In theory, Dr. Birdwell says, the Oak Street Campus, 7501 E. Oak St., could serve as the district’s culinary headquarters. Each school would still be responsible for cooking or warming up some food in smaller kitchens.

The savings from building smaller kitchens in the seven rebuilds vs. full-size kitchens could pay for a centralized kitchen on the Oak Street campus. The Oak Street campus is currently used for title 1 per-kindergarten, K-9 alternative learning and several offices, SUSD Public Information Officer Erin Helm said in a May 5 follow-up response.

“There’s a central kitchen that really does a bigger prep, it could support all 29 schools,” said Dr. Birdwell.

Dr. Denise Birdwell. (photo by Josh Martinez)

Dr. Birdwell met with Nutrition Services Director Patti Bilbrey and was impressed with the department’s financial statements.

“It’s one of the healthiest budgets we have in the district,” she said. “It brings in income, which lets us invest back into the food we’re preparing for kids. Really, it’s a self-supporting group that actually can pay for its own kitchen equipment.”

The catering services department brings in about $600,000 in profits annually, Dr. Birdwell said. She believes a central kitchen could increase those profits to $2.1 million profit.

“We get multiple requests to cater to other schools — and we do,” the school leader said. “We cater for charter schools and private schools. The community would like us to do more, we just don’t have the capacity.”

Additionally, one large kitchen could provide fresher ingredients and food.

“We still want fresh, good ingredients. So, that being said, there’s also the capacity to vary this food up a little bit to make it a little more appetizing and attractive to our students,” Dr. Birdwell explained.

“So a centralized kitchen serves our own schools, and then it continues to allow us to continue to expand.”

Governing Board member Kim Hartmann raised the question of additional transportation costs by using this method.

“I can tell you we’re already doing some transporting,” SUSD Chief Financial Officer Laura Smith said. “We talked about buying box trucks, and what that would take, and it’s still fine. She could afford to buy the trucks out of food services.”

Staffing is expected to remain relatively the same, Dr. Birdwell said.

“If we didn’t have a pattern of success, I would be less — a little bit hesitant,” Dr. Birdwell said. “But because we have a pattern of success, what we’re doing is saying ‘OK you’ve proven you can do it, and now we’re going to give you the capacity to do it, and now you can grow it.’”

Chief Technology Officer Louis Hartwell, who has been working closely with the bond projects, also expressed his support for the concept.

“She (Patti Bilbrey) is turning away schools right now — we know the demand is there, if we build it they will come,” he said.

Northeast Valley News Services Editor Melissa Fittro can be e-mailed at mfittro@newszap.com or can be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/melissafittro.

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