If you have ever walked into a Pittsburgh Public elementary school and tried to find the kitchen, you will be hard pressed to do so. Only three of our elementary schools (grades K-5) have full-service kitchens. The rest of the 21 elementary schools have no kitchens at all. That’s right – no kitchens! No kitchen means no food preparation and no washing or sanitizing utensils. To do these things, we need commercial grade food service equipment like stainless steel counter space to prepare meals and 3-bowl sinks to wash dishes.

So how do we feed the 5,000+ students that attend these 21 elementary schools across the district? And what do we feed them? Let’s learn a little bit more about how the Food Service Department operates, and what that means for the kids.

To get started, we need to look off-site. We cannot prepare meals in these schools, so we have to get them from somewhere else. The Central Kitchen is located on the South Side in a 92,000 square foot facility. It may seem inconspicuous to the average passerby, but inside the building things are anything but ordinary. The Central Kitchen has been in operation since 1973 and over 10,000 lunches are produced in the building daily. That’s a lot of food – and that is only lunches. The Central Kitchen also prepares breakfasts and dinners for some schools, as well as Early Childhood meals and meals for outside contracts.

With over 10,000 meals per day being produced in the Central Kitchen, there is a lot to be done. So much, in fact, that it would not be cost effective to solely use manual labor. The Central Kitchen is home to a FEMC Packaging line that can push through up to 200 trays per minute. The trays are specially designed to be heated in the schools to the appropriate temperature for consumption. The Food Service Department refers to the trays as “hot packs”.

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FEMC Packaging Line located in the Food Service Center on the South Side prepares about 5,000 lunches daily at a speed of about 200 per minute. These “hot packs” are then shipped out to elementary schools across the district.

The FEMC packaging line has some pretty cool functions that allow for diversity in meal planning and preparation. “Dial fillers” allow for appropriate portioning of vegetables (1/2 cup portions). The line also features two 150 gallon “blending tanks with hoppers”, which enable items to be pumped into the trays like mashed potatoes, gravy, or marinara sauce. Additionally, there is an “automatic basket loader”, which places ten full hot pack lunch trays into stainless steel baskets for transportation, heating, and serving. However, there are limitations to using a Central Kitchen and hot pack method, the biggest of which includes sizing and consistency of food items. For example, broccoli florets are too large to fit through the dial fillers and therefore limits our service of frozen broccoli to elementary school students. Consistency of product can limit the use of the pumping function. For example, macaroni and cheese cannot be pumped because the force of the machine will tear the macaroni to shreds causing a “cheese soup” appearance.

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Green beans are rotated in the dial filler and are dropped in 1/2 cup portions into the trays. Dial fillers are used to portion lunch items like vegetables or chicken nuggets and can be adjusted as needed.

After the food is prepared on the South Side, the hot packs are shipped out to the 21 elementary schools without kitchens across the district. Once on-site, the food is heated in an oven and brought up to safe temperatures prior to lunch service. The Central Kitchen is essential for safe food storage and preparation so that all Pittsburgh Public School students can eat hot, healthy, well-balanced meals – even those students in schools without kitchens.

For more information on the Central Kitchen, please contact Peter Fatalinio, Production Manager, at 412-529-3316.

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Chicken tenders and green beans cruise down the line on the South Side. Although frozen now, this “hot pack” will be served warm with a dinner roll, a dipping sauce for the chicken, and a cold cup of milk. Also available daily to the students are assorted fresh fruits and vegetables.