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New Meals on Wheels kitchen holds down costs, improves food

Ken-Ton Meals on Wheels now has an industrial kitchen that some might deem worthy of a TV cooking show like “Top Chef.”

The organization – which delivers an average of 220 hot and 135 cold meals each weekday to homebound and elderly residents – retired its early 1980s-era stove, oven and steamers this summer and replaced them with more than $116,000 worth of shiny new stainless steel equipment.

The major upgrades include two “combi ovens,” a gas stove with six burners, a tilt skillet, two steamers, a fire suppression hood and a blast chiller.

“This is still all new to us,” Executive Director Dan Wiles said. “We’re still learning. As they’re playing with some of it they’re getting excited. It’s kind of neat to see.”

Cooks in the Parkside Village Community Center kitchen are especially enamored with the combi ovens, which allows them to use steam, hot air or a combination of both to roast meats, Wiles said.

“Now that we’ve got this I can buy meat that we’ll roast ourselves, instead of meat that’s already been cooked,” he said. “So it’s going to be cheaper. Because it’s not processed, it’s going to have less sodium. We should have a better-tasting meat because we’re doing it ourselves and, with this new equipment, it should be better nutrition, because it won’t have the high sodium content.”

The 30-gallon tilt skillet has hydraulics to pour the skillet’s contents, such as stews, vegetables and, one day last week, hash browns into large pans for packaging.

“They cook nice and evenly and get nice and brown,” Wiles said. “It’s a very versatile piece of equipment.”

The blast chiller cools meats roasted several days in advance down to under a food-safe 40 degrees in just a couple hours. Meat is then reheated in a steamer, sliced and sent out for delivery at the right temperature.

“We didn’t have that capacity before,” Wiles said.

Most important from a safety standpoint, however, is the addition of the hood, which is connected to an overhead Ansul fire extinguisher and the building’s fire alarm system. Kenmore Rotary Foundation contributed the funding for the hood, Wiles said.

“I knew if I was ever going to change any equipment I had to have a hood,” he said. “That was the first need, and they jumped on it.”

Wiles pointed to the yearlong kitchen project as an example of a broad coalition of community support lining up behind a single cause.

Funding from the East Hill Foundation secured the combi ovens, while the James H. Cummings Foundation purchased the blast chiller, he said. Other donations came from DuPont, Dunlop, Walmart and Meals on Wheels of America, along with various service organizations in the town.

Installation by Town of Tonawanda employees began July 1 and was completed Aug. 5. While the organization was displaced, it used the kitchen at nearby Holmes Elementary School.

Erie County Senior Services helped with researching the equipment, while Buffalo Hotel Supply supported the design, purchase and installation.

Wiles said he hopes the upgrades will help the organization maintain its food costs at current levels for the next year, which will allow it to keep prices at $4.75 for a hot meal and $2.25 for a cold meal for its 255 active clients. The organization served over 86,000 meals last year, he said.

Wiles said he’s hearing anecdotally from staff, volunteers and clients that the meals are tastier and fresher, but he is planning to follow up in the fall with a client satisfaction survey.

“The staff is excited,” Wiles said, “because they’re not pulling out dry meat and putting it out there.”