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Fall 2003
by Martha O’Connell

An outdated foodservice program plagued Memphis City Schools until the new school year started in August and a new way of providing meals using the TUCS system began earning high marks.

What makes it tick is a new manufacturing process to help school kitchens effectively serve 115,000 meals per day.

The backbone behind the new system is a $20 million Central Nutrition Center , or CNC, that processes food for all 180 schools.  Elsewhere such as casinos or health care centers, a central commissary servicing multiple foodservice outlets in the complex is not a new concept.  However, only until recently have large school systems with tight budgets and aging buildings found that central commissaries make sense.

“This is a significant change to a system that in essence has not changed in over 20 years,” says Bill Vomvoris, vice president of New York-based Romano Gatland, the design firm behind the project.  “What you have done here is taken manufacturing technology and it’s been customized and sized down to accommodate the foodservice application.”

Under Memphis ’ old system, each school did its own food production with ingredients from a central source.  Schools followed a centralized menu.  Now there is little else to do at each school other than retherm finished food products delivered from the CNC.

The CNC’s system including the TUCS machinery is automated and processes food from start to finish – from removing unprepared ingredients from packages to correctly storing cooked product until it is shipped.

In many instances, employees have to do little more than push a button and monitor the equipment.  Memphis City Schools Nutrition Services Director Ann Terrell says the new operation is a marked difference from Memphis ’ past system which relied heavily on manual labor and inadvertently produced a lot of food waste when unused portions spoiled.

First, food is automatically hoisted and poured into one of five steam jacketed kettles at the CNC ranging in size from 50 to 300 gallons.  It is cooked and then sent through an automated pumping and packaging process.

In the TUCS system, foods are pumped out of the kettle automatically and into pouches that are formed from a roll of clear film.  The TUCS system continuously fills bags with food product measured out to exact quantities and then heats seals and labels bags.  In addition, a TUCS horizontal pack tank evenly distributes ingredients into each bag.  All five kettles are all connected into the same discharge valve so the time-consuming task of connecting each kettle and packaging machine by hand is not necessary.

From there, food bags travel on to a conveyor belt that moves it along to a tumble chiller. 

Resembling a huge commercial washing machine, the 300-gallon rapid chill system quickly brings down food temperatures through the danger zone.

During the entire process, foods are pumped out of kettles at 180 degrees and above and brought down to less than 40 degrees in less than an hour after they come out of the tumble chiller.

“What makes this particular system innovative is the fact that Memphis has tried to minimize as much of the manual labor as possible,” says John Jasper, TUCS marketing and sales director.  “This equipment has been around for a long time but it has never made it into the school systems.”

After the tumble chiller, foods are stored in a food bank between 28.5 to 31 degrees and then delivered by refrigerated trucks to individual schools.  Typically, each school receives a CNC delivery once a week.

Cold foods such as vegetable products are washed and sliced and then vacuumed sealed at the CNC before they are sent out to schools.

In some cases, the CNC produces an entire finished product such as macaroni and cheese that is rethermed at schools.  For other dishes, components of meals are produced at the CNC such as tossed salad, beef taco mix or marinara sauce.

The TUCS system is the major innovation Memphis schools are housing in the new 217,000 s.f. CNC, a rehabbed warehouse building located near the city’s interstate highways for easy truck access to the schools.

Although the CNC opened last summer (2003), it will take the full school year to implement everything in the new foodservice system.

Potential cost savings are high for the Memphis public system that educates kindergarten through high school students and also includes three daycare centers.

Combined labor, equipment, and food expense savings is estimated at $1.6 million annually, Terrell says.

The CNC also includes a central bakery for the schools where items such as breads, sheet cakes and pies are prepared and sent out to schools where they are reheated.  Before the central bakery, each school had its own small bakery but could not produce the amount of baked goods necessary and had to outsource for some products.

A central warehouse also in the CNC makes it possible to deliver all food products needing processing there.  This means food can be purchased in large quantities, food costs can be reduced, and less storage space is needed at schools.

Memphis ’ foodservice funds come largely from federal reimbursement and meal fees and the system has a huge responsibility.  Aside from lunch, it also provides limited breakfast items, catering for school functions, and 23,000 daily student meals in the summer.

Producing food in large batches means meals and their preparation will be consistent throughout all schools, which, in turn, makes it possible to run a uniform food safety program.

Since all major food preparation has been moved to the CNC, Terrell explains that certain equipment at school kitchens will be phased out and costly repairs won’t be needed in the future.

Memphis schools have had a tough time getting part-time labor at individual schools, but the CNC eases that burden.  The CNC created 103 full time jobs and less reliance on manpower at school kitchens.  For CNC employees, the automated production system reduces the chance for on-the-job injuries such as back or arm injuries from lifting.

“We bought the latest equipment that was out there and we are very proud to be able to do that because it saves labor,” Terrell says.



Operation: Central Nutrition Center

Location: Memphis City Schools

Opened: August 2003

Facility size: 217,000 s.f.

No. of schools in system: 180 and three daycare centers

No. of students served by system: 119,000

Production Volume: 115,000 meals per day served

Equipment sampler: TUCS form filling seal packaging machine, Groen CapKold 300-gallon batch tumble chiller

Menu sampler: chili with beans, chicken and rice soup, turkey and dressing