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Clayton school nutrition chief eyes new cafeteria technologies

Clayton County Public Schools Nutrition Services Director Audrey Hamilton, left, and Construction Project Manager Ronick Joseph recently attended the Fourth Annual Equipment Academy Conference hosted by the Georgia School Nutrition Association. (Special Photo)

Clayton County Public Schools Nutrition Services Director Audrey Hamilton, left, and Construction Project Manager Ronick Joseph recently attended the Fourth Annual Equipment Academy Conference hosted by the Georgia School Nutrition Association. (Special Photo)

JONESBORO — The three serving lines at Jonesboro High are antique by definition.

The sturdy buffets have herded generations of students to lunch in the cafeteria over the years. But now it’s time to replace the pieces with more modern equipment, said Audrey Hamilton, nutrition services director for Clayton County Public Schools.

“One of our first projects is we’re going to renovate is installing brand new serving lines at Jonesboro High by the start of school next year,” said Hamilton.

Last month, she attended Georgia School Nutrition Association’s Fourth Annual Equipment Academy Conference in Perry. Maintenance Department coordinating supervisor Russell Denton and construction project manager Ronick Joseph joined her for the three-day conference, Jan. 15 to 17.

“Staying up to date and well-trained on the latest culinary technology allows school nutrition professionals to stay abreast of culinary trends in order to create healthy, well-balanced school meals,” said Libby Townsend, speaking on behalf of the 6,000-plus member nonprofit Georgia School Nutrition Association.

“Cost of foods, student-appeal and preparation time are all factors when developing school menus,” she continued, “but resources and education sessions provided at the Equipment Academy make the balancing act easier.”

Hamilton invited Denton and Joseph to attend the conference because, she said, having someone in the construction department who understands the functionality and importance of purchasing quality and efficient food service equipment strengthens the district’s day-to-day operations.

The trio were on a mission to learn more about new cooking technologies and equipment in school nutrition.

Hamilton said their particular focus was on upgrading some of the district’s serving lines like those at Jonesboro High. Refrigerated milk boxes and hot-cold pass-through cabinets also were a priority.

She said the statewide conference served as an opportunity for school nutrition professionals to take a gander at the latest products from major kitchen and cafeteria equipment manufacturers.

Department heads and workers also increased their knowledge base while touring classrooms full of food samples, cooking demonstrations and model equipment — from new-age dish washers and microwaves to vegetable steamers and infrared ovens.

“We saw some things that we liked,” said Hamilton. “Our menus drive the type of equipment that we buy. I also look for ease of use — something that is easy to clean, maintain and repair.”

She said that, in some cases, manufacturers have allow the district to create “test kitchens” to pilot the use of new equipment entering the food prep market.

“We buy equipment every year as needed,” said Hamilton, noting her department maintains an annual equipment budget between $150,000 and $200,000.

Hamilton leads a department of roughly 600 nutrition workers who are among the first to show up for work. Most work between the hours of 5:30 a.m. and 3 p.m., preparing breakfast, lunch and, in some cases, after school snacks.

“We play an important role in educating students, because we’re responsible for providing students with nourishment so that they can focus in school,” she said. “We play a very important part in student achievement.”