For years, the Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) cooked its meals for students in one of three regional kitchens. Under the direction of Chef Ann Cooper, BVSD’s director of nutrition services, everything was made from scratch — gone, in 2009, were processed school-food staples like chicken nuggets and items loaded with high fructose corn syrup, trans fats and other unhealthy ingredients. But the kitchens were reaching capacity and the district was missing a valuable teaching opportunity.
So in 2014, Boulder voters approved a bond program that, among other projects, funded the construction of the $16.4-million Central Kitchen, which has additional storage for food, a café and a teaching kitchen.
Construction began in 2019, and now, it’s complete (although the pandemic put a stop to grand-opening plans). The features within the 33,000-square-foot facility maximize the district’s ability to teach, work with local farmers, and cook healthy food.
“We believe that for a child to learn, think and be the best they can be, they have to eat well. That’s why we scratch cook,” says Cooper. “What that means is cooking with raw ingredients. It’s not individually wrapped, it’s not processed, it’s cooked from scratch, which means we know exactly what is going into the food.”
There are some unique features in the facility that utilize technology to ensure food safety and efficiency in the production process. For instance, there is a cook-chill system that includes a giant kettle connected to equipment that portions and seals large batches of food automatically, before the portions are moved to a chill tank to drop the temperature instantly. Such rapid movement and chilling of the food helps prevent the need for added preservatives.
Though other school districts around the country are building culinary production-education facilities like BVSD’s Central Kitchen, one thing that separates this local model from many others is how the design encourages collaboration with local farmers. For instance, though there’s a large bay door for trucks to make food deliveries, there’s also a delivery door designed to fit smaller trucks and vans from local farmers. There’s also enough storage in the facility to buy from local farms in bulk and keep food in cold storage — many local farms don’t have the capacity to store large amounts of their crops. And there’s a dedicated produce washing room with special equipment designed for fruits and vegetables; the Central Kitchen will handle the duty of cleaning produce so farmers don’t have to.
While all these improvements bring BVSD to the cutting edge of school-food preparation, it was also just time to upgrade its facilities. After switching the food program to an all-scratch-food menu, the district’s food staff found it inefficient to move food from one of the three locations to another, hampered by the size of the individual kitchens. And staff was working out of retrofitted school cafeterias that weren’t designed for cooking from scratch.
But by consolidating the facilities into one, and adding in new technology, the Kitchen staff can crank out up to 17,000 meals per day and they can do it more efficiently and more cost-effectively. What used to take three to four hours in the old system now takes as little as 45 minutes.
It’s a milestone moment in the district’s overall transition to healthy food, Cooper says.
“Twelve years ago we really thought into the future about what it would take to have the best food service operations that we could,” she says. “One of the things we said was that we should have a central production facility. It’s amazing to get to see its doors open after all of the hard work and generous support that made it a reality.”
In the future, you can enjoy the Culinary Center even if you’re not a BVSD student: Once the department raises a few additional funds, they will outfit a café space to serve food to the public, provide a teaching kitchen for cooking classes, and other community culinary events. If you’d like to support this effort, a donation can be made here.
Correction: A previous version of this article indicated the cafe was open to the public now; it’s not. Don’t go there yet. We’ll let you know when you can.