A growing number of K-12 schools are working to incorporate farm-to-school programs and more fresh food into their students’ daily meals.
The food students eat at school impacts more than their physical well-being; some studies also link healthier meals to improved academic performance. One research study released in 2017 reported that increasing the nutritional quality of school meals appears to be a promising, cost-effective way to improve student learning, according to an article published by The Brookings Institution.
However, it can be challenging for many schools to find the necessary funding and available labor to prepare and serve more fresh food to students.
Choosing the right kitchen equipment, such as food processors, can help schools improve efficiency when preparing fresh food, as well as increase the quality and longevity of the product — so there is less food wasted and a school’s budget can go further.
A Growing Movement
The term “farm to school” generally refers to efforts to bring local or regionally produced foods into school cafeterias. Farm-to-school programs also often include hands-on learning activities such as school gardens, farm visits, culinary classes and food-related education.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has supported the Farm to School Grant Program since 2013, providing grant funding to schools, non-profit organizations, local and state government agencies, and other entities. From 2013 through 2017, the program awarded $25.4 million in total funding to 365 projects in 50 states, the District of Columbia, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. But that’s just a fraction of the 1,632 applicants that requested a total of $120.5 million in funding during those years.
Most of the grants support schools and school districts with free or reduced-price meal eligibility rates higher than 50 percent. The USDA estimates that funded projects have reached approximately 29,300 schools and involve an estimated 13 million students in farm-to-school activities.
The funding is used to buy local foods for school meal programs, train food service staff, purchase equipment to support additional food processing and preparation, and for hands-on education, among other things.However, the statistics make it clear there is a disparity between the support schools seek and the funding they receive.
Schools Face Obstacles
Schools face several challenges in the effort to provide students with the freshest, healthiest food and to teach them healthy eating habits.As the USDA data illustrates, one of the biggest challenges is finding the money to implement these programs, purchase fresh foods locally and prepare these foods — which is often more time-consuming than preparing processed foods.
And, because preparing and serving fresh food typically takes more time and skill, labor can be another obstacle. A school may want to implement a farm-to-school program and have access to fresh fruits and vegetables — and the funding to purchase them — but the school may not have the necessary kitchen staff to properly prepare a greater amount of fresh food.
How the Right Equipment Can Help
The equipment used to prepare fresh fruits and vegetables can impact the quality and shelf life of that food. Anything that helps extend shelf life helps schools avoid food waste — and save money.
With the right food processor, for example, schools can efficiently prepare fresh food that will last longer so they can stretch their budgets. Investing in a food processor is also much more efficient than cutting, slicing and dicing fruits and vegetables by hand, especially for schools that are challenged by a lack of kitchen labor. The right food processor can save time and money, while also increasing the volume of food produced. The right equipment makes a difference in the appearance of the food, which can make it more appealing and prompt more students to eat it.
Any time fruits and vegetables are washed, sliced and diced, their shelf life begins to shorten. However, cutting and preparing produce using a food processor at the right speed — and following some key best practices — can help lengthen food shelf life. Look for a continuous feed food processor that can run at a slower speed, such as 450 RPM, and that uses a blade that hits the skin of the fruit or vegetable in a manner that improves cutting performance. Cutting produce at the proper speed and angle can extend shelf life by helping to retain moisture. This is especially key with high-moisture foods such as cucumbers and tomatoes.
A food processor that works with a broad selection of cutting tools provides flexibility to change the menu and tackle more food preparation jobs in the kitchen efficiently. With one machine that works with multiple cutting tools, kitchen staff can quickly go from slicing tomatoes for hamburgers to dicing tomatoes for chili, or from grating carrots for the salad bar to slicing carrot medallions to be cooked.
Features to Consider
To choose the right food processor, first consider what types of food will be prepared. Units are available in a wide range of sizes to process various amount of food in a given period of time. One unit may process 11 pounds of produce per minute, for example, while a larger unit is capable of processing up to 88 pounds per minute.No matter the food processor size, consider these key features that can help optimize efficiency and performance:
- Hopper Size: It’s critical to choose a processor with a large enough hopper to meet the needs of the application and to offer flexibility for the kind of foods being prepared. One continuous feed food processor that is popular in school kitchens has a large full-sized feed hopper that can process up to 17 pounds per minute — or 800 servings a day. The hopper is large enough to shred or slice an entire head of lettuce or cabbage, for example, with no need to pre-cut the produce. This provides convenience and saves time.
- Interlock System: Look for a processor that offers an interlock switch, to help minimize the risk of injury. This technology prevents the machine from running unless the interlock system is locked down. The blade will not spin when the pusher plate is swung away or is open. There are varying levels of interlock systems available on the market.
- Stainless Steel Blades: A food processor with stainless steel blades and cutting tools is easier to clean. Stainless steel tools can be put in a dishwasher or a ware wash product, ensuring proper cleaning and sanitation. This helps save time compared to hand washing tools and ensures that equipment is properly cleaned to eliminate bacteria accumulation that could lead to food safety issues.
- Removable Parts: A unit with parts that are easily removable also saves time in cleaning and helps ensure the machine is thoroughly cleaned. Look for a food processor that has removable cutting tools and a hopper with no-tool removal.
- Decoring Screw: A food processor that includes a decoring screw provides greater quality and consistency in food preparation. A decoring screw deflects products away from the plate hub of the machine and into the middle of the hopper, for more complete processing of that item.
- User-Friendly Design: Certain features help make a food processor more comfortable for operators to use, resulting in less operator fatigue. A machine positioned at a 50-degree angle in the front makes product loading easier for operators. Some food processors also offer ergo loop flexibility, so operators can use either hand to push the feeder and load produce.
Follow Some Best Practices
In addition to choosing a food processor that offers the right capacity and tools for the job, following some key best practices for using and cleaning the equipment can also help deliver optimal results.
Be sure to clean all fruits and vegetables before starting. It’s also important to thoroughly clean the food processor and all cutting tools. This helps prevent cross-contamination and issues with food safety.
When using and cleaning the equipment, handle sharp cutting tools with care. Store cutting tools in a safe and convenient manner, such as on a tool rack or in a bin marked by tool size.
Lastly, properly loading the hopper with the right amount of produce helps ensure the best performance. A food processor blade turns clockwise as it operates. When loading product into the hopper, load it in the same direction. This allows the blade to immediately hit the product as the blade spins. Loading the food on the far side will jostle the fruit or vegetable, and it may not slice evenly.
Improve Productivity and Minimize Waste
Schools want to provide the freshest, best-tasting meals for students. Implementing a farm-to-school program can help in meeting this goal.
Having the right food processor — and following best practices for use — can improve productivity in preparing and serving fresh produce while also minimizing food waste, so schools can make the most of their investment.