How U-46's new commissary feeds thousands of hungry students

 
 
Posted9/7/2018 5:30 AM
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  • Fresh fruit is prepared for students at the Elgin Area School District U-46's new commissary in a 40,000-square-foot former warehouse in Elgin.

      Fresh fruit is prepared for students at the Elgin Area School District U-46's new commissary in a 40,000-square-foot former warehouse in Elgin. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Workers at Elgin Area School District U-46's new commissary, housed in a 40,000-square-foot former Elgin warehouse, assemble 8,000 breakfasts and 13,000 lunches daily for elementary students.

      Workers at Elgin Area School District U-46's new commissary, housed in a 40,000-square-foot former Elgin warehouse, assemble 8,000 breakfasts and 13,000 lunches daily for elementary students. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Elena Hildreth, Elgin Area School District U-46's new director of food and nutrition services, talks about the district's new commissary housed in a 40,000-square-foot former Elgin warehouse. She said the facility allows the district to provide more fresh fruits and vegetables to students.

      Elena Hildreth, Elgin Area School District U-46's new director of food and nutrition services, talks about the district's new commissary housed in a 40,000-square-foot former Elgin warehouse. She said the facility allows the district to provide more fresh fruits and vegetables to students. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Supervisor Amelia Rothstein counts some of the fresh fruit prepared for students in Elgin Area School District U-46's new commissary.

      Supervisor Amelia Rothstein counts some of the fresh fruit prepared for students in Elgin Area School District U-46's new commissary. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Elena Hildreth, Elgin Area School District U-46's new director of food and nutrition services, walks toward the large freezer area in the new commissary off Bowes Road in Elgin. The facility has the capacity to receive pallets of fresh fruits and vegetables.

      Elena Hildreth, Elgin Area School District U-46's new director of food and nutrition services, walks toward the large freezer area in the new commissary off Bowes Road in Elgin. The facility has the capacity to receive pallets of fresh fruits and vegetables. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Some of the items on Wednesday's lunch menu for Elgin Area School District U-46 elementary students.

      Some of the items on Wednesday's lunch menu for Elgin Area School District U-46 elementary students. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • Elgin Area School District U-46's new commissary is housed in a 40,000-square-foot former warehouse on 1150 Bowes Road in Elgin. It allows the district to expand food offerings and provide fresher choices to students. The former commissary was half the size and housed at Eastview Middle School in Bartlett.

      Elgin Area School District U-46's new commissary is housed in a 40,000-square-foot former warehouse on 1150 Bowes Road in Elgin. It allows the district to expand food offerings and provide fresher choices to students. The former commissary was half the size and housed at Eastview Middle School in Bartlett. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

Thousands of pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables are processed daily to feed a hungry multitude of students within Elgin Area School District U-46.

Twelve workers on the front lines assemble roughly 8,000 breakfasts and 13,000 lunches in the district's new commissary in Elgin for students at 41 elementary schools and a couple of preschool programs. They prep the day's lunch and the following day's breakfast starting at 5 a.m., and work until 2:30 p.m. for delivery to schools.

It takes a team of more than 200 food service employees and a cadre of drivers, custodians, and lunchroom supervisors to feed students at the state's second-largest school district.

"It is an orchestra," said Elena Hildreth, director of U-46's food and nutrition services -- a roughly $16.4 million operation this school year. "It is really amazing."

U-46's eight middle schools and five high schools are self-sufficient, preparing their own foods on-site with only supplemental help from the commissary.

Housed in a 40,000-square-foot former warehouse at 1150 Bowes Road, the new commissary is twice the size of its former space at Eastview Middle School in Bartlett.

Officials say the new facility allows the district to offer more food choices, providing students better quality and fresher alternatives, and has room to expand the nutritional program. It is not set up to handle raw produce, so it's all assembly for now.

"Efficiencies and growth were the purpose of getting this commissary," Hildreth said. "We don't have to go get food stored at four different sites. Right now, we are really a receiving and a production site. A lot of the fruit goes out whole."

While 30,000 half-pint cartons of milk are delivered to schools directly, the commissary processes thousands of pounds of plums, watermelons, cantaloupes, grapes, blueberries, beans, baby carrots, chopped romaine lettuce and fresh broccoli, among other produce. Temperature-controlled storage rooms, a large production space with dedicated hose reels and washing areas for cleaning and sanitizing, and a separate allergen-free zone are the biggest improvements with this facility.

"We have a huge produce cooler so we can house fresh vegetables," said Hildreth, adding that large pallets of fruits and vegetables can be stored in another staging freezer. "Receiving so many pallets was difficult before. This is a completely nut-free facility. We are able to accommodate any allergen that's thrown our way."

With the additional storage, the commissary can put out more seasonal fresh fruits and vegetables, such as apples in October and provide salads more frequently on the menu.

"The kids love it," Hildreth said. "It is only the beginning. Growth is the goal. It's pretty exciting."

Officials hope to start hosting on-site cooking classes and training sessions in the spring. They also want to set up a student internship program with Elgin Community College and Northern Illinois University. Classes could be held in the commissary breakroom, which seats 75 people.

"We would be able to do tours and additional training ... partnering with the schools to work through that is the goal," Hildreth said.

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