PORTLAND, Maine — The Portland School Department’s new central kitchen is set to open this fall, in time for the first day of school. Food Service Director Ron Adams said the new kitchen will allow the department to better prepare and build on its already large program to serve locally sourced, fresh food.
“This updates equipment that is 30 years old and lets us serve better quality food in a safe environment,” Adams said.
A majority of city schools’ food is made at the central kitchen, which serves 10 schools and makes more than 1 million meals per year, according to the Portland School Department.
While the new kitchen was purchased with a $3 million bond approved by the City Council in 2010, Adams said the final price tag on the project will end up being $3.2 million. The city will help pay the total amount by drawing from other reserve accounts.
The facility at 92 Waldron Way, off Riverside Street, will replace the dilapidated Reed School kitchen on Homestead Avenue.
The converted, former elementary school has many awkward features, including a cooler that was adapted from the gymnasium and former classrooms re-purposed to cook large quantities of food.
Adams said the new, 21,250-square-foot building solves some of the space issues of the old building and is better designed to handle food preparation.
The food service department will bring over equipment from the old kitchen, and the old Reed School will then go into the surplus process with the city, he said.
“We’re taking anything that still has a viable life to it and trading in for some equipment that we did not get through the bond,” Adams said.
In late 2011, the Portland School Board struggled to determine the future of the aging Reed School kitchen. The board contemplated renovating it and building a new kitchen, but ultimately, the decision was to purchase a Riverside Street property for $3.9 million and renovate the available space to accommodate the kitchen.
But in early 2012, before the city could close on the purchase, the owner pulled the building off the market, forcing the city to look for other options, Adams said.
Instead, the city was able to buy the Waldron Way property as the site of the new central kitchen last fall, he said. The purchase included some of the food processing equipment inside.
Previously home to Portland Shellfish Co., a seafood processor, the company was shut down by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in January 2011 after it found “significant deviations” from federal food handling laws and health regulations. The FDA found serious health risks including listeria, a bacteria that can cause deadly infections.
Facilities Director Doug Sherwood said the department conducted health inspections of the building prior to the purchase and “found no detectable levels of listeria or the shellfish allergen.”
Most of the listeria was contained in the processing equipment and removed with the purchase, Sherwood said. In addition, the department also replaced the flooring and drainage systems, he said.
The old central kitchen failed its last available health inspection Dec. 11, 2011. Portland Health Inspector Michelle Sturgeon cited the kitchen for 16 violations, including five critical violations that indicated a risk of spreading foodborne illness.
Sturgeon cited the facility for inadequate food temperatures, employees not washing their hands, zero soap at one hand-washing sink and wood-cutting tables in disrepair, among other violations.
Adams said the new kitchen is better suited for food production.
With the new facility, food will transported cold and then reheated at the schools. Previously, food was sent out warm and held in electric warming boxes, providing more of an opportunity for food to drop below safe temperatures.
Adams said the new kitchen will also help expand the local foods program which currently serves about two or three regionally sourced food items in every meal. That’s the yearly equivalent of “three truckloads of produce in the same day,” Adams said.
“That’s an astronomical number for an urban school,” he added, noting that about 3 percent of the food budget is spent within 100 miles of Portland. “Purchasing local produce, meats and fish really starts to make a game change in the farm economy. … The new facility will be able to enhance those numbers.”
Eventually, the new kitchen will also help facilitate the Summer Meals Program, which the Portland School Department expanded this year to include 16 locations, up from 12, Adams said.
The program will feature new sites including at the Deering Oaks playground.
The meals are available to any person under the age of 18, yet Adams said the program is drastically under-used, with only about 20 percent of 3,700 eligible clients participating.
“Nationwide participation is 60 percent,” he said. “We would love to see improvement and get through the summer and get up to 35 percent.”
Adams said the meals program can also act as a supplement to food pantries, which often see a spike in customers during the summer.
Families and children can find meal sites by calling 2-1-1 or texting “MEALS4ME” to 877-877. The program is federally funded and administered by the Department of Education.