Eugene 4J’s shift to in-house cooking has meant multiple operations needed to start from scratch. The facilities at the Education Center exemplify several of the changes.
The kitchen at 4J’s headquarters on Monroe Street is no bigger than a what you’d find at a restaurant. Yet it serves the ECCO alternative high school and the district’s staff cafe, it’s 4J’s test kitchen and it often supplies food for 34 school cafeterias.
Alvarez: “When I started, there was nothing in here except for maybe a table.”
Jose Alvarez was hired in June to prepare for in-house operations. The district brought in two chefs, who develop menus and mass produce some items. Chef Sam Ward says a few days ago, they made pico de gallo:
Ward: “Ten cases of Roma tomatoes, 70 pounds of onions, five pounds of jalapenos, a case worth of cilantro, another two pounds of garlic and then limes for days.”
Ward and his assistant Jeff Gardner start each weekday at 6:30 to prepare breakfast. They go straight to lunch duties. Then, there’s development:
Ward: “We’ve got a recipe test a little bit later today, we’re going to do some fried rice. Big batch cooking, that’s the key here. Yesterday, I looked, we served over 9,000 meals.”
They’re training staff at other schools, so more scratch cooking will happen elsewhere. This space, says Alvarez, is also a classroom for ECCO:
Alvarez: “There’s about six kids that are enrolled in here to work in the kitchen, so they come and help us prep for the school and for the cafe”
Hernandez: “You get to experiment with a lot of foods. Knowing so little about it, every day’s like a new experience.”
Geremie Hernandez started as a student here, and was recently hired to work in the mornings.
Nearby, the district has a warehouse for the food they’ve learned to source. Jill Cuadros is the Nutrition Services manager.
Cuadros: “The local farms don’t necessarily have the distribution opportunities the way a more broad-line distributor would have. So we’re bringing in those local products into our warehouse and then it’s falling on us to then distribute it back out.”
Cuadros says it’s a bigger job than they expected. Outfitting kitchens and adding salad bars required costs up front and:
Cuadros: “We’ve also have acknowledged that if we want better food, it costs more, the price point is higher.”
She says their spending is strictly monitored, and they have to stay within a budget. Jose Alvarez says feedback from students has been largely positive. And it turns out, what’s good for students is also healthy for adults: The Ed Center’s staff cafe has become more and more popular all fall.