Hundreds of cookies, thousands of sandwiches and thousands of pounds of meat are churned out each day by workers at the Chandler Unified School District’s central kitchen.
The operation is unusual compared with surrounding East Valley school districts. Many other districts in the region, such as the Mesa Unified School District, instead have staff who cook at individual schools.
Chandler’s central kitchen provides all of the essentials for 26,000 students in the district every day, from cheese quesadillas to whole turkeys.
Richard Kalesz, production supervisor of the central kitchen, said creating fresh items in one location creates one big advantage: “We have control over it all,” he said. “That’s what it boils down to.”
Wes Delbridge, food and nutrition supervisor for the district, said the central kitchen also means more flexibility for staff to adjust recipes to make them healthier for students.
“We know everything that goes into our products,” Delbridge said. “If we hear about a new healthy ingredient, we don’t have to go out and find another product.”
Already the cookies are made with 25 percent wheat flour and could go up to 50 percent to make the recipe healthier, Delbridge said.
But Kalesz emphasized that flavor is still a big factor if a recipe is changed.
Parents have inquired about the district’s low-fat ranch dressing, also made from scratch. The secret ingredients? A little mayonnaise, skim milk, yogurt and ranch seasoning.
Food that hits lunch trays are usually prepared a day in advance.
Just before the holiday break, elementary students could order pasta and marinara sauce as an entrée.
The pasta was precooked, packaged, cooled and set on carts labeled for individual schools. The sauce also was made from scratch.
Delbridge said using the fresh process eliminates additional sodium and trans fats — the unhealthiest fats — from many of the foods served to students. The ingredients are typically used in processed foods to extend the life of the product.
Delbridge said the kitchen had to make only a few changes to recipes when the state released new school nutrition guidelines earlier this year,
In addition, if a child at an elementary school has a severe peanut allergy, the kitchen makes a special batch of cookies without peanuts, he said.
“We can give (parents) peace of mind,” he said.