Back to School with Wanda McCown

By mid-August, the school year is already in full swing in many parts of country. In others, kids are soaking in the final few weeks of summer before returning to the classroom for the fall semester. Working just as hard as teachers and other members of school faculty to get ready for students to return are the thousands of cafeteria managers tasked with making sure their kitchens are ready to provide the food it takes to keep kids well-fed throughout each school day.

Wanda McCown, Executive Director of School Nutrition for Knox County (Tenn.) Schools, knows how much work goes into providing nutrition to elementary and secondary school children. Nearly 60,000 students are enrolled across Knox County’s 88 schools, and Wanda is ultimately responsible for making sure each has access to a wholesome lunch.

Wanda’s 30 years in school nutrition have taught her the importance of maintaining the equipment that’s used to cook, heat, and serve school lunch. She was generous enough to talk with us about the process of keeping school cafeteria equipment serviced, and she offered some tips on how cafeteria managers can get their equipment ready for the school year and keep it running smoothly year round.

KaTom: What are some tips for getting school lunch equipment ready for the school year? Are there any critical maintenance chores or tune-up requirements that are often overlooked?

Wanda McCown: Well, we have preventive maintenance that’s performed during the summer months to keep the equipment humming along. The managers check their equipment during the summer. We call them “check-in days.” The managers come in to make sure no freezers have gone down or that type of thing. One of the main things that has helped us more than anything is that we have a summer cleaning crew that goes around and does some deep cleaning during the summer. When they do that, they go around and check refrigeration equipment, and help to keep an eye on it and make sure that the equipment is maintaining its temp and that type of thing.

We also have a company that goes and does preventive maintenance on our refrigeration equipment during the summer at different checkpoints to make sure it’s in good working condition. They replace filters and gaskets and those type things, and that’s been a major help to use because I think it’s helped us to not have as many repairs or breakdowns during the school year.

K: Have you ever had managers walk into the kitchen at the beginning of the school to any surprises?

WM: We have. Especially if the summer’s been hot. This summer we’ve been fortunate. We don’t have a lot of inventory left in our freezers over the summer, but there is some. We have had our managers or our cleaning crew or even the preventive maintenance folks go in and find that the freezer has gone down and that food has gone bad. That’s not been a big problem this summer. I think maybe we’ve had two freezers go down. But one thing we’ve been really diligent about is that we don’t leave a big inventory in the freezers over the summer.

K: Are there any supplies that cafeteria managers should be sure to stock up on to make sure they’re not left short-handed at the start of the school year?

WM: Our folks, we try to get them what they need. We have an open policy. If it’s August and you need sheet pans, or it’s January and you need some kind of utensil, then they just send in a request and we try to order it for them if the funds are available. So we try to keep the supplies they need there so when they come back in August there’s not a problem for them. They have what they need to get the job done.

K: Is that pretty much universal across school systems in the area?

WM: I can’t speak for all the counties. And Knox County, we have not always operated that way. I used to be a manager. I used to be out in the schools and I know how that is when you don’t have what you need to work with. So since I came into this position, I have made the managers aware, “If you need something to work with, you let us know because we want you to have it.”

K: What piece or pieces of cafeteria equipment in a school kitchen prove to be the most important during the school year?

WM: I would think the ovens and the steamers. They are used every day, and if they go down, you’ve got a problem. Those are two key pieces that have to be operational because you’re going to be using those ovens and those steamers every day.

K: We know that there have been some pretty major changes to federal school lunch guidelines in the past few years. Have those changes affected which pieces of equipment are more important?

WM: I think those have always been the two major pieces of equipment. But, I do think that steamers are becoming more important now that we’re steaming vegetables and trying to use more fresh produce. I tell you, I go back 30 years, and I don’t think we’ve ever been able to do without an oven and steamer.

K: What are a few important but often overlooked maintenance tasks that should be performed during the school year to make sure school cafeteria equipment lasts as long as it should?

WM: Well, the managers are told that any time they have a problem or a piece of equipment isn’t operating correctly, that they turn in work orders to our maintenance department as soon as they realize there’s a problem. When we get new equipment, we have a manufacturer’s rep come and train our staff on the proper operation and cleaning and how to take care of that piece of equipment. I think proper use, cleaning, and maintenance – you can’t put a price on that throughout the school year.

Tanner West
Tanner West

A dedicated festival-goer, Tanner West has seen more bands perform live in the middle of hay fields and city parks than most people have probably heard of. Raised on beans and taters, he recently renovated a home and three vintage sheds in the back woods of East Tennessee that serves as a quiet retreat for reading and ready base for hiking and camping trips. Despite being able to craft 500-word descriptions of restaurant equipment, Tanner is a man of few words who described the best meal he ever ate in one word: Coffee.

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