The place where breakfasts and lunches are made for elementary and middle school students in Pittsburgh Public Schools bears no resemblance to a kitchen.
It is a corrugated metal, 62,000-square-foot warehouse next to the railroad tracks on the South Side.
As the building opens each day at 5 a.m., giant machines in the center of the main room whir awake. Employees trickle in to stock trucks with dollies holding trays of frozen food.
Within the hour, workers are on the road, delivering the next day's breakfast and lunch for 1,500 preschoolers, 5,500 elementary students and 4,000 middle schoolers.
This factory-like process is a far cry from the scene decades ago, when lunch ladies cooked hot meals in each school's cafeteria. But it's also an improvement over what schoolchildren were served just five years ago, when high-fat cheese sticks and french fries dominated menus.
Today, Pittsburgh schools and districts around the country are serving age-appropriate calorie limits, a wider variety of vegetables and fruits, more whole grains, and fat-free or 1 percent milk. High schools and some middle schools have salad bars and made-to-order sandwich wrap stations. The improvements are part of last year's updated guidelines for the National School Lunch Program, progressive changes that will continue through 2015.
In its latest initiative, the district will introduce Grab 'n Go breakfasts this month to make sure students who oversleep or arrive on a late bus eat breakfast.
An individually wrapped muffin or a breakfast bar and milk would supplement or replace sit-down breakfasts that have been free to all students in the school district for the past five years, supported by federal funding supplements. Studies show that far too many students are starting the day on an empty stomach, which can lead to behavior problems or trouble focusing at school.
Six schools will pilot Grab 'n Go Breakfast by mid- to late October, though it won't roll out districtwide until January.
A holdup is packaging, as well as how and when to distribute them once students arrive at school.
"We have to make sure it's sanitary, that it's served in a plate with compartments and that it does not lead to litter or pests within classrooms," said Curtistine Walker, director of food service for Pittsburgh Public Schools.
The cooking conundrum
But the biggest problem with cooking in public schools is that no one's really cooking.
It's not just the case in Pittsburgh. Across the country, there's about as much cooking at the average public school as there is at a 7-Eleven.
Without the use of raw ingredients, many of the day's calorie and nutrition counts are met through artificial additives and supplements -- fortifications of processed food rather than vitamins and minerals that are naturally occurring.
Take Pillsbury Mini Cinnis, specifically made for public schools to comply with the new lunch guidelines. If a cafeteria worker were to bake cinnamon rolls, she'd use flour, yeast, sugar, salt and cinnamon.
Pillsbury adds to the wheat flour mix malted barley flour, niacin, iron, thiamin mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid, sugar, vegetable oil, soybean oil, nonfat milk, modified corn starch, cinnamon, salt, yeast, "natural flavor" and TBHQ, a preservative. The 65-gram, 240-calorie breakfast contains 12 percent sodium and 11 percent fat.
Compare this with Pillsbury Mini Cinnamon Bites with icing sold at a grocery store. Each serving is 49 grams and 160 calories, with 16 percent sodium and 7 percent fat.
Individually wrapped pancakes and French toast also fulfill bread requirements, along with whole grain Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Trix cereals manufactured by companies to meet school nutrition requirements.
Advocates for school lunch reform point out the need for more aggressive change even though kids are learning through such programs as Food Revolution Pittsburgh, which has been implementing Jamie Oliver's strategies for healthy eating, and Edible Schoolyard, which, through Grow Pittsburgh, teaches kids about fruits and vegetables.
But change that's any more sweeping than the requirements of the national school lunch program are a challenge without money. As things are, spending has nearly doubled since 2000, when it cost $6.1 billion to feed 27.4 million children. In 2011, it cost $10.1 billion to feed 31.8 million kids.
"Critical to thinking about the problem is that schools get very little money to feed their kids, $1 or so per kid per day in some districts," New York Times reporter Michael Moss, author of "Salt Sugar Fat," said in an email. The federal program supports American agriculture producers by providing cash reimbursements for meals served in schools and enables schools to purchase bulk products for a lower price.
"What schools are doing now is the best they can do with the resources they have. It's not like they have the budget of an NFL team," said Leslie J. Bonci, nutritionist and consultant to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Penguins and Pirates, as well as numerous high schools and universities. "We're looking to parents for what they're doing to complement these meals."
While schools are meeting current guidelines, "one-third report that their current kitchen equipment makes it difficult to serve healthier foods, and one-quarter face challenges related to infrastructure, such as electrical and plumbing capacity," according to a Sept. 30 national survey conducted by the Kids' Safe and Healthful Foods Project.
Of the 3,372 schools polled between August and December 2012, just over half have moved to or are expected to move to more from-scratch cooking, which could mean schools would need more equipment and space to prepare meals on-site and store fresh ingredients. For now, $10 million has been allocated by Congress for school food service equipment in fiscal year 2013.
Inside the food service center
Before the building on the South Side was renovated, food service workers indeed could have baked cinnamon rolls.
From the 1970s through the 1990s, the warehouse was sectioned into a bakery, a meat room, a frying station and a salad/cold food section. Staff prepped ingredients, at one point delivered by freight train, which explains why the building is next to the tracks.
Today, employees prepare one of four items: refried beans, chili, processed mashed potatoes or pasta, the only food cooked in the facility.
On a platform on the main floor, vegetarian chili bubbles as it's stirred with a rotating arm in a giant steel vat. A worker dressed in gloves, a lab coat and the food service version of a shower cap transfers the chili dispensed from a tube into sealed 1.5-gallon bags to an ice bath that looks like a giant washing machine. It cools 200 gallons worth of 1.5-gallon bags to a temperature below 40 degrees.
Across the room, a worker staffs a machine that, in 25 minutes, claws the tops off 200 cans of processed cheese food that's then dumped into a metal vat with an exit tube a few feet away on the conveyor belt.
Into a compartmentalized tray, 2 ounces of cheese sauce oozes from the vat. Another dispenser squirts 4 ounces of cooked refried beans and a third inserts 3 ounces of taco meat.
This is the making of the turkey taco lunch with refried beans, cheese and chips to be served two days later.
Dressed in a button-down shirt, a striped tie and blue pants, coordinator of food service center operations Peter Fatalino is warm and enthusiastic as he escorts guests through the giant facility.
He shows off every work station and storage area. He doesn't miss the rainwater collection room, where giant jugs collect water that cools the 5,000-square-foot walk-in refrigerators and freezers. He walks visitors up to the roof, where solar panels installed a couple years ago help power the building.
He has helped implement these procedures in the 26 years he has worked here.
He also emphasizes safety features. This means that no one can touch food with bare hands or a gloved finger. And they certainly can't taste it.
After machines dispense food into trays, they're vacuum-sealed in plastic that's treated to let the steam out. Then it's scanned by a metal detector, which hasn't picked up a foreign object in food for years, Mr. Fatalino said, citing its vigilance.
The sealed trays end up on one of 11 dollies that hold 5,500 lunches for kindergarten to fifth-graders. One dolly is a tower of trays that rises well above the top of a worker's head. They're refrigerated and then transported to schools the following morning.
A few weeks later, workers at the belt placed three frozen whole-wheat breaded chicken strips per dish in a compartment next to baked beans, then followed the same sealing and stacking procedure.
Across the room and around the corner, workers packaged salad greens on giant stainless steel tables. They counted tomatoes and cucumber slices and added cubes of baked ham to containers of salads.
This is the only place where fresh food makes an appearance. There is little washing or knife skill necessary. Most of the produce is pre-washed and pre-cut.
Near the salad area, Mr. Fatalino pointed out what looked like an empty stainless steel closet. "We receive USDA commodity turkeys when they're offered," he said. "There is no set time of year, but usually it is in the fall and winter months."
This empty rotisserie room reinforces how the school lunch program affects Mr. Fatalino on down to each child in the system. There's about as much fresh or unprocessed meat in a school lunch as there is in this empty closet.
Mr. Fatalino also notes that the main floor is tidier than usual, minus boxes from General Mills, Tyson or the ones in the corner from Gold Kist Farm. A quick check shows that Gold Kist is owned by Pilgrim's, a subsidiary of Brazilian food giant JBS, the largest chicken producer in the United States. The company supplies KFC, Wendy's and Wal-Mart.
The small charter school exception
Pittsburgh Public Schools is part of the Pennsylvania Regional Food Service Directors group, which has a committee that's responsible for putting together the annual bid for food purchases. This year, it was awarded to US Foods, the 10th largest company in the United States.
This level of bureaucracy is why it's easier for charter schools to navigate the National School Lunch Program in terms of creating meals with fresh, local ingredients. Charter schools do not fall under the responsibility of Pittsburgh Public Schools' food service.
The Environmental Charter School at Frick Park is one example of a school that's trying to source locally. Launched in 2008, the school employs 60 teachers for 600 students from kindergarten through eighth grade. Many are children of artists, professors and chefs, parents who have picked the school for its mission, which is to use "environmental content as a lens for instruction" -- and which includes a conscientious school lunch program.
On a Wednesday afternoon in the cafeteria, first-graders gobbled a meal of locally sourced grilled chicken with shredded lettuce, salsa and cheese, a side of pineapples and brown rice. A partnership with a local farm provided the class a shipment of local peaches.
Other lunches on the monthly menu include an open-faced turkey sandwich, salad with chickpeas, red pepper and cucumber slices, mashed potatoes and apples. The menu is updated every few weeks based on what kids seem to like and what's available from distributors down to local farmers.
Kids raised their hand for teachers to come by to bring them more peach slices.
"It's totally possible to get locally sourced meat in school lunches," said Kelsey Weisgerber, food service director. She said that after three years in the position, she has learned how to write bids that allow for local companies to win a contract to supply food to her school.
Ms. Weisgerber and her team work with Slow Food Pittsburgh, Grow Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Community Kitchens.
"It has taken us awhile to figure out how to navigate the system to order food from sources we trust," she said. "But it's important to order food that aligns with our values."
Back at the Pittsburgh Public Schools' food service center, Ms. Walker said she is in discussions over whether to expand distribution to other school districts and facilities that house seniors or those with special needs. These meals would not comply with the school lunch guidelines. "We have the capacity to get good prices because of the volume of meals we serve," she said. She will find out within the month.
Even with minimal cooking going on at the facility, Ms. Walker said she's getting positive feedback.
"We can make healthier meals that taste good," she said. "It can be done."
Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198. Twitter: @melissamccart.