NEW BEDFORD — Among the basement windows on the school administration building, there’s one on Morgan Street that has been replaced with sliding, elevator-style doors. Inside, a groaning conveyor belt descends past stacks of boxes, which hold everything from branded cereals to reams of paper to surgical masks.

Every morning during the academic year, this conveyor belt carries all the meals served to roughly 1,500 students at the 11 New Bedford schools that don’t have on-site kitchens, including Pacheco, Congdon, and DeValles Elementary. 

At the bottom of the conveyor belt stands Alice Johnson, who winces at the sound it is making.

When the conveyor malfunctions — which it’s known to do — the kitchen staff has to carry hundreds of pounds of foodstuffs up and down the makeshift, wooden stairs that lead to the street-level opening. For items that are too heavy to carry, staff will attempt to push them up the belt by hand.

Neither route is appealing: a few months back the kitchen manager, Lori Almeida, had to visit the emergency room after her finger caught in the belt; and Johnson, the assistant director of food services, remembers at least one employee falling on the stairs.

Even when everything works as it should, Johnson calls the whole operation inefficient and tiresome. Shipments are disassembled to fit through the window, then reassembled onto carts that squeeze through aisles of miscellaneous storage, only to reach cooking equipment that is either broken or outdated. 

“It’s a pretty bad situation,” Johnson says.

Their days in this basement kitchen could soon be coming to an end. At last week’s committee on city property, city councilors unanimously approved a request for purchase order on a building at 449 North Street that will become the district’s new central kitchen. The final step before approval is a special session of the City Council this evening to accept the property committee’s vote. 

At more than 16,000 square feet, the new building will have enough room to prepare meals for all the New Bedford public schools that do not have food preparation facilities. Separate doors for shipping and receiving will allow vans to load up school lunches without blocking delivery vehicles, which in turn block traffic. And office space and training centers mean that the teams working on nutrition, acquisitions, and logistics can share the same space (right now, not all the administrative staff can fit in their basement offices).

By agreeing to purchase the property, the city is now beginning to turn its wheels on a problem it has known of for at least six years. In 2016, an external report identified a need to invest in food services, including by exploring “the development of a central commissary.” Representatives from the school department have met with city councilors about purchasing property since 2020. 

“This is a go-go,” Michael Gagne, New Bedford’s interim chief financial officer, told city councilors at last week’s city property meeting. “Jumping into the market before [widely predicted interest rate] increases in July will save millions,” he told the New Bedford Light in an interview. 

Andrew O’Leary, director of school finance, also spoke to assure city councilors that the district is well situated to pay back a $5 million bond that will facilitate the purchase, thanks to grant money from the USDA that will also provide for equipment and operations.

Facility expected to open for 2023 school year

The new central kitchen isn’t expected to be operational until autumn of 2023, meaning staff will have to rely on their aging equipment for another school year.

Johnson and Almeida, sitting down to discuss the current central kitchen, surprised themselves with how much they had gotten used to the problems. The operations team estimated that receiving took at least 1.5 times longer than it should. 

“I can’t believe we do all this,” Johnson said. “There’s so much extra, unneeded work.”

In the kitchen, Johnson points out two industrial kettles that are broken. The two that do work are missing crucial attachments, meaning workers need to ladle out the food one spoonful at a time. They sit under a large ventilation hood, which is also broken. Workers get fresh air by opening the back windows, until mowers pass by and spray grass cuttings.

The outdated facilities affect school contracts. The supplier of garbage bags, for example, didn’t realize they were expected to do so much unloading, so stopped providing services. According to Johnson, the district ended up scrambling and purchased a more expensive contract with a supplier who agreed to the extra work.

Most of the physical toll falls on the kitchen’s workers. 

“We’re doing so much lifting down there,” said Almeida. She remembers other incidents, like when cases of creamed turkey toppled off the side of the conveyor belt. And when shipments have covers or lids, those can sometimes slide toward whoever waits at the bottom.

“They suck it up,” Johnson said, complimenting her team’s toughness. “They’re not the type to complain.”

New kitchen modeled on state-of-the-art facility in Springfield

Besides the 11 public schools in the district, there are a handful of “satellite schools,” or partners across the city that rely on the district for their meals. The need is so great, however, that demand exceeds what the central kitchen can provide. So, Campbell Elementary prepares the meals for Saint Francis Xavier. Pulaski Elementary does the same for All Saints.

In total, all the “non-cooking” schools and partners in New Bedford require more than 5,000 meals each day, including breakfast and lunch, according to an operations document from 2021. Whether these are prepared at the central kitchen or elsewhere, the complicated chain of logistics that provides groceries and arranges for transportation is entirely housed in the basement of the administration building.

School officials have a model for how they want the new kitchen to run, which they call the “Springfield model.” A recently completed “culinary and nutrition center” in Springfield can feed nearly 30,000 students each day.

Only three schools in Springfield don’t have an on-site kitchen, according Roger Weger, resident district manager for Sodexo, the company that operates Springfield’s food service.

A new central kitchen in New Bedford, a much smaller district where many more schools don’t have food facilities, will improve the consistency and quality of meals for students, says Johnson. 

“We need the right tools to do the job,” says Almeida, the kitchen manager. 

Her current office can be found through a maze of boxes; some of it is food storage, but there are also old computers and cleaning materials. Almeida says she is careful to store all food far from the chemicals, but that space is slowly running out.

The design for her new office includes four walls, a window, and a carpeted entrance area that separates her from a larger storage room. 

“That’ll be nice,” she says.

Email Colin Hogan at chogan@newbedfordlight.org.

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