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Archive for Wednesday, September 1, 1999

TOP OF THE FOOD CHAIN FEEDS THOUSANDS

September 1, 1999

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Need a good spaghetti-and-meat-sauce recipe for 500? Call Paula Murrish, director of food services for the local school district.

The next time you're in the kitchen spreading Skippy on Wonder Bread or pouring chicken soup into a Thermos for your child's sack lunch, think about this:

Last year, Lawrence public schools served 1,075,043 lunches -- as well as 187,099 breakfasts -- to the district's approximately 10,500 students.

That's a lot of grilled cheese sandwiches and French toast sticks.

"It's very challenging. Think how hard it is just to please your own family around the dinner table. Then try doing that for everyone from preschoolers to 12th-graders who all have different tastes and backgrounds," said Paula Murrish, director of food services for the district.

Murrish is the one responsible for overseeing the planning, purchasing, preparing, serving -- and even transporting -- of those thousands upon thousands of meals across the 25-school district.

In other words, she's at top of the food chain.

Feeding the troops

Hers is a herculean task.

Murrish, who started the job last October, manages a team of 140 administrators, department heads, cooks, servers and prep workers.

She's in charge of allocating a $3.3 million yearly budget, of which about $1.3 million is for food purchases.

Last year, the system she runs was responsible for putting about 1,100 breakfasts and 6,000 lunches on the table -- each day.

"Our goal is to feed the most kids possible the best meal possible -- with a smile," Murrish said.

That job is carried out in the district's 16 production kitchens where meals are prepared.

The two biggest kitchens -- at Lawrence High School and Free State High School -- prepare meals that are then transported to seven satellite kitchens in schools that aren't equipped for food preparation.

For a hoot -- and some insight into the tools needed to pump out all that food -- take a peek into one of the two main kitchens at the high schools. It's like wandering onto the set of "Honey, I Shrunk the Chef."

Walk-in freezers you could park a Lincoln Navigator in.

Industrial-size mixers to spin globs of dough that'd snap your arm off if you tried doing it by hand.

Forty-gallon kettles that look like Jacuzzis.

The utensils the cooks use to stir giant batches of macaroni and cheese resemble stainless steel oars.

New food trends

In order to cut down on food waste -- and to satisfy her diners -- Murrish is constantly trying to figure out what students of all ages like to eat.

This requires staying on top of emerging food trends, working closely with vendors and analyzing what meals go over big -- and which dishes bomb.

"We're going to start putting out food preference surveys for our students, so we can determine what choices they want us to offer them," she says.

"We'll do our taste testing, with 8 to 10 student representatives from each school, on March 7, 2000."

Not only does Murrish try to ensure the meals taste good and look appealing, but she also needs to analyze them nutritionally, in weekly blocks, so they meet the government's recommended daily allowances.

Dishes new to the school cafeterias this year include popcorn shrimp and "nautical fish shapes"-- breaded fish nuggets cut to look like starfish and other sea creatures. (Both items appear to be early hits.)

Students in the secondary schools, meanwhile, will start to see the new Philly steak sandwiches showing up on their lunch menus.

High school students pose Murrish's greatest struggle.

Because they enjoy an open-campus lunch period, she's up against McDonald's, Wendy's and KFC.

The fast-food outlets, unfortunately, often win.

If high school students have a driver's license, or know a pal who does, they're outta there.

"It's been a challenge," Murrish concedes.

-- Jim Baker's phone message number is 832-7173. His e-mail address is jbaker@ljworld.com.

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