The first step before harvesting the garden bounty is for the kids to wash their hands. Then, after harvest, the produce needs a thorough washing. "Right now we're using a colander in a separate, three-compartment sink and an organic vegetable sanitizer for that," Schnitzer says.
Part of the beauty of an on-site garden and chicken coop, Schnitzer says, is the ability to avoid tacking on extra travel miles to get those foods to the school. Such delicate, high-quality food is often highly perishable.
In a segment typically overrun by pressure from commodity boards and big business, AGC has managed to navigate the federal school lunch program to incorporate organic and local food, including its own. That means a lot of cooking from scratch. To meet National School Lunch Program guidelines, AGC works with a nutritionist to produce balanced meals, and the kitchen team looks to create seasonal menus.
"Menu development is a fluid process for us," Schnitzer says. "We tried quinoa oatmeal, but just couldn't get it right, and the kids didn't want to eat it," he says. "We decided to drop it and replace it with something that still worked within the same guidelines."
Produce has to be certified organic or at least grown using organic methods. "If we are sourcing from a local family farm that isn't certified organic, but we know they are growing it in a trustworthy way, we'll accept it. We've talked about creating our own standards for which foods to use," Schnitzer says.
The daily menu also includes a vegetarian dish as well as others reflective of some of the kids' backgrounds. "Last year we introduced a posole with tofu using locally sourced hominy and radishes to increase the local source of that meal," Schnitzer says. "Because many of the students were familiar with posole, we were able to get them to try something new like tofu."
While Chartwells serves as the contract foodservice provider for CPS, AGC has its own unique relationship with the firm. "Chartwells is clear with what our goals and mission are and know how to work with us," he says. That includes purchasing energy-efficient equipment.
Still, the long and narrow, 36-foot by 9-foot kitchen is pretty basic. The staff of six utilizes a large, four-burner range for sauces and oatmeal, a convection oven, two steamers, and three rack ovens. Because AGC makes every single food item, which includes breakfast and lunch, from scratch, these pieces take a regular beating. Durability — and flexibility – are paramount.
"Instead of having a fixed piece of equipment, we look for pieces that can be changed in different ways or easily moved about," Schnitzer says. The school recently switched to a heavy-duty, larger flattop grill to be able to cook anything from pancakes to tofu. Culinary staff use steamers to lightly cook vegetables or even gently thaw the sprouted wheat bread from a local bakery that comes in frozen. "We also need a lot of prep space," Schnitzer says.
An industrial immersion blender represents a key and versatile piece of equipment, as kitchen staff use it to puree sauces, soups and smoothies. "It's pretty inexpensive and can be racked up and stored in the back of a shelf, given our small footprint," he says.
AGC gets deliveries once or twice a week, but goes through the fresh produce and proteins quickly. As a result, cold storage is minimal, consisting of just two reach-in coolers, two reach-in freezers and two undercounter refrigerators, one for the prep space and the other for the kitchen.
"Managing inventory is a big part of what we do," Schnitzer says. "We schedule our deliveries for early in the morning and established a porter position to get everything from the truck into the kitchen space and also be able to prep and help with dishes."
While there is a small salad bar for the older students, the school portions out salads and other bulk meals for the younger students so it's not as overwhelming. "The chef and our kitchen staff already do a tremendous amount of work scratch-cooking for 300 kids, so it's easier to create salads in a larger batch versus in salad bar style," Schnitzer says. "And to be honest, I think the kids eat more salad when it's portioned out to them – it takes extra motivation to decide to go to a salad bar, and then choose your ingredients. And it definitely eliminates waste."
Due to the ongoing success of the school, the AGC has started to outgrow its current space. Schnitzer says the team set a goal to merge the two school groups and move to a larger, new building nearby. The new building would serve kindergarten through eighth grade students, and possibly even include a high school. That would mean new facilities, a new kitchen and new, energy-efficient equipment.
While the school currently has a demonstration wind turbine, they hope to use this as well as geothermal and additional solar energy to power the new building and get closer to the net-positive goal.