Fresh Meals on Wheels of Sheboygan County Inc. in Wisconsin

This new kitchen incorporates technology that is changing the way staff prepare meals for the homebound, disabled and elderly in this community and perhaps the country.

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Fresh-Meals-On-Wheels-Flexible-SpaceIn the flexible area, volunteers gather and can watch as staff prepare meals in the kitchen. The kitchen is named after a generous donor, Jay Christopher. Since 1970, Meals On Wheels Sheboygan County (MOW) has delivered nutritious meals to homebound, disabled and elderly in northeastern Wisconsin. For many of the food recipients these meals represent the main source of their sustenance. "Families who have a parent on Meals on Wheels quickly learn that we are more than just a hot, nutritious meal," says Kelly Heyn, MOW's executive director. "The safety check that a daily visit provides is a secondary benefit that comes into play for our most vulnerable meal recipients. It's not just about ringing a doorbell and handing someone a meal. The caring social interaction that takes place every day helps to combat the isolation that affects so many of our clients."

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Today the meal recipients and their families, which now total 400 daily, are even more appreciative than ever. Gone are the days of their meals consisting mostly of highly processed foods produced under contract by a local catering company. "We've moved away from institutional cooking and now produce fresh, nutritious meals from scratch," says Scott Erdmann, MOW's foodservice director. "In addition, we can expand the number of clients we serve without significantly increasing staffing." To reflect these changes, the program updated its name to Fresh Meals On Wheels of Sheboygan County Inc.

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The program changes are possible due to a new kitchen that opened in November 2012. Housed in a former electronics retail store, the single-level, 12,000-square-foot facility has the ability to produce meals for up to 1,000 people daily and includes a large entrance area, offices, the meal pick-up area and what is called the "flexible area," where volunteers can lounge while waiting for the completion of the packaging process and to observe kitchen activity through a wall of windows.

"The planning process for our new facility and enhanced fresh meal service was grueling, but necessary," Heyn says. "The main premise of the new system is that it allows us to safely access and utilize locally grown and donated produce, which benefits recipients because their meals are more nutritious and also the community because we're accepting fruits and vegetables they grow and donate to us. But the board of directors had to spend several months with local government agencies and corporations before switching from the old model to a new one."

Once all the authorities agreed that a new system could work, MOW built the kitchen. Funding for the new kitchen came from private donations, and the program operates on private donations and minimal sales from meal recipients who can afford to pay. Manufacturers donated about one-third of the equipment. The MOW facility receives fresh produce from local farmers, most of them large commercial operations but some smaller gardeners also participate. MOW purchases packaged goods, meat, poultry and dairy items from a local grocery store right across from its new kitchen. Staff produce some meals for immediate delivery and consumption, while they prepackage and freeze other meals that will be delivered to clients along with their hot meals for weekend backup meals.

"Meals On Wheels was doing a great job with what they had to work with, so it was our mission to make it better," says Paul Mentink, vice president, Abacus Architects Inc. "We wanted to improve the quality of meals they were providing and make it more efficient so they had room to grow in the future. We also wanted to incorporate fresh produce into the meals, which was something that had not been done before. We live in a farming community so to have the means to accept large amounts of donated produce was important to the staff. To our knowledge no other program is doing this, and we knew that other programs will be watching."

Mentink credits foodservice consultants Michael Toska, owner of Lean Kitchen Solutions LLC, and Thomas D. Ligocki, owner of Lean System Solutions LLC and former owner of LKS, with doing "a great job of taking a very gray concept, one that was not well defined, and turning it into a state-of-the-art kitchen. The fact that Meals On Wheels could serve anywhere from 400 to 1,000 meals a day and could handle 0 to 5 trucks of donated produce delivered at any given time is hard to accommodate in a design."

Fresh-Meals-On-Wheels-Meal-AssemblyStaff assemble meals in an open area visible through windows. "We use a process called Lean Design Methodology, which seeks out and chases continuous improvement," says Ligocki. "Several Lean design elements incorporated into this project are convenience store 'see-through' doors on the walk-ins, induction cookers, combi ovens, a tracking and labeling system using computer screens, produce washer and a ventless dishmachine."

"Our mission was to create a meal production and packaging facility that works as a comprehensive system," Toska says. "The facility needed to be capable of high volume delivery with a small crew, be flexible enough to incorporate foods from a variety of sources, and be consistent in production rates regardless of custom menu changes within the production cycle. It also had to insure proper nutritional content on a client specific basis, maintain top-level nutritional quality and food consistency through to the final delivery of meals."

In addition, Toska says the facility had to be energy efficient and provide a low-stress, user-friendly working environment for staff and volunteers. The space also needed to include an observation gallery.

"The general flow of food coming in and then the staging, preparing, cooking and packaging is one continuous stream through the facility," Toska says. "There is no backtracking, and there are no paths crossing to create congestion or bottlenecks. After production, packaged meals are placed into hot delivery boxes in a large, well-lit open area where volunteers can easily take their route information and meals and head out for delivery."

Processing Produce

For produce, deliveries come to a segregated drop-off area. Once a receiver checks it in, produce is taken into a room where it is stored, cooled, washed in a produce washer that resembles a large dish tank, and sanitized in a grapefruit-based solution in order to eliminate cross contamination between unprocessed and processed produce. Produce may be processed with a peeling machine and vegetable cutter before entering the production kitchen area.

Fresh-Meals-On-Wheels-Produce-AreaIn the produce area, staff wash and process it so it does not contaminate other foods.Staff either immediately use cleaned and sanitized produce for the day's menu preparation or freeze it in a blast chiller to reduce the risk of botulism and then vacuum pack it prior to storing in a freezer for future use. Biodegradable containers holding stored food can be reheated in a microwave oven.

"One of the main challenges of the produce processing portion of the facility was being able to receive spontaneous deliveries of produce," Toska says. "Someone may call Meals On Wheels saying, 'There's a truck on its way, it'll be there in an hour,' and the staff must respond to receive those vegetables. To solve this, we designed a small vestibule at the garage where produce can come through to be checked. From there the produce is placed in a staging cooler in the back garage. This way Meals On Wheels can receive and hold food during times when there is no one there to further handle it."

"Sanitation is a constant focus," says Toska. "Another imperative is maintaining the food's flavor, texture and nutritional qualities whether it is delivered immediately or frozen and held for later use."

"Varied and spontaneous produce donations require that MOW kitchen staff have a degree of freedom and creativity that is rare in most institutional settings," Erdmann says. "For example, MOW baker Melissa Bauer used donated watermelons to create a homemade watermelon syrup for desserts and comes up with unique ways to use the near-ubiquitous supply of rhubarb. Hotline cook Angela Meyer makes already nutritious meals even better by incorporating everything from fresh zucchini and Swiss chard, as well as making distinctive mac and cheese using donated artisan cheese from a local company. Jane Nauschultz manages volunteer help and uses the produce to make healthy cold items such as fresh quinoa salads, kohlrabi and zucchini slaw, and tasty wraps. Clients have definitely noticed their efforts and client satisfaction has increased at a rapid rate since the donations started coming in."

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