The Portland Public Schools system is upgrading its centralized kitchen with the help of University of Maine Cooperative Extension food safety specialist Jason Bolton.
The system’s food processing center, currently housed in the Reed School building at 28 Homestead Avenue, where it has been since 1987, expects to be in a newer, updated facility by this fall.
In 2010, Ron Adams, Portland Public Schools food service director, contacted Bolton for assistance with the design, layout, equipment and regulatory aspects of a new facility after architects and contractors determined the current building was beyond repair. Bolton says he has helped set up similar facilities, but never a building used for cafeteria-style food preparation.
Adams says he contacted Bolton, an assistant extension professor, because he wanted someone with food processing facility experience to help the kitchen with the transition.
Bolton toured the current facility, which he described as compartmentalized with a terrible flow, and spoke to Adams about what he was looking for in a new building. Adams and Bolton considered several sites before securing a 15-year-old building last year.
The building, located about three miles from the current facility, used to house a seafood processing plant and requires renovations before the commissary can move in. The plans for the facility were finalized in the spring and construction is under way.
The city of Portland approved a $3 million bond to pay for the facility, real estate and equipment, according to Adams.
Bolton assisted with the kitchen design by offering suggestions for the layout of equipment and floor drains and recommendations of what type of wall materials, floor coatings and sanitation systems should be used.
“It’s all about preventing contamination issues,” Bolton says.
The 16 workers at the commissary are responsible for making and shipping around 5,000 meals a day to K–12 students attending public schools in Portland, according to Adams.
The meals are fully cooked at the commissary and are shipped out to school cafeterias to be served to students.
“They had done a lot of Band-Aid fixes on things because that’s what they had the money to do so they had to do it,” Bolton says of the current facility. “Nothing that was necessarily unsafe, just not all that efficient.”
Bolton says a lot of the outdated equipment made tasks more difficult for workers, and the new facility will improve conditions with additions such as more pumps to avoid heavy lifting, a preparation area for workers to get ready and more office space.
The new space will also be easier to clean and will provide space and necessary equipment that will allow the commissary to expand its market, Bolton says. The food center wants to turn part of the building into a shared-use facility they could either rent to other processing companies or use to co-pack, meaning they would use their workforce when they’re not making school meals to prepare and process food for other companies, according to Bolton.
“Food safety and quality control will greatly improve with the new facility,” Bolton says, citing floor drains, sanitation systems, new equipment and wall and floor materials as important upgrades. “They will also decrease their risk of food-borne illness.”
Bolton also expects efficiency will improve with new equipment, loading docks and the overall flow of the building by reducing electricity and cook time.
The commissary is also working to increase use of food from local farmers.
“They’re starting to get into processing local produce, so they needed a facility where they could also do that and their old facility was kind of rough,” Bolton says.
Bolton says the new building has enough space, storage and loading capabilities to handle processing and freezing more local produce.
“We purchase a large portion of our food from local sources given our urban location,” Adams says, estimating about 20 percent of the food used at the facility is local dairy and 10–12 percent is local fruits, vegetables, bakery and proteins.
Bolton plans to continue his relationship with Adams and the commissary through training. He says he believes members of Adams’ management team will attend some of his summer courses on commercial-food sanitation to prepare for possible expansions with food processors.
Contact: Elyse Kahl, 207.581.3747
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