Food service workers prepare wrapped turkey dogs to serve in Salem-Keizer elementary schools (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

In Salem-Keizer School District's central food production kitchen, servings are often measured by the thousands.

The industrial kitchen in a nondescript building in southeast Salem cooks up chili, burritos, hamburgers and more for every elementary school in the district serving about 15,000 meals daily.

A recent morning's order included 4,000 turkey dogs wrapped in whole wheat dough.

It's a people-heavy task. Many food service workers have been on the job for decades, and it takes about 400 people during the school year to keep things moving.

"We hired 28 people yesterday," said Mac Lary, the district's food services director.

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Ham and cheese sandwiches feed into a packaging machine to be shrink-wrapped at Salem-Keizer's food services headquarters. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

The district contracts with Sodexo for its food services. At middle and high schools, lunches are made on-site in the cafeteria, but elementary schools order from the central kitchen and have breakfast and lunch items delivered daily.

Workers begin at 6 a.m., and it's not unusual to have a line for the three docks where trucks are filled with food to go out to schools around the area.

Cafeteria workers at each school track what gets eaten and what doesn't and order accordingly, so two schools with the same student enrollment may have very different lunch orders.

"They get to know what their kids like," said Terri Lloyd-Jones, a staff dietitian.

Dry food orders sit ready to be distributed to Salem-Keizer elementary schools (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Food service worker Nayomi Nelson bags chili to be frozen, then served at Salem-Keizer elementary schools. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Lloyd-Jones used to be involved in meal planning, but this year, Sodexo began planning school meals regionally for multiple Oregon district to make purchasing more efficient. Much of the food for the school year is ordered in March.

Menu items are re-used from year to year, but some new items have been added. Those include "dragon puffs," an egg fritter muffin with ham and cheese, which is being tested out later this month.

On a recent morning, workers were bagging vegetarian chili from 80 gallon pots. The chili is stirred, heated and cooled in the bot before being piped out the bottom via a hose. From there, it's bagged and frozen to be served sometime in October.

"No human hands!" said Carla Riboli, one of two food service workers bagging the last of the chili.

Baker Frances Navarro loads whole-wheat flour into a stand mixer to make dough. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Cheese sauce sits in the food services freezer waiting to be used. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Menu items often resemble school lunches from 20 years ago, featuring kid favorites like pizza, hamburgers and burritos.

Like nearly every school lunch program in the U.S., much of the food served comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture commodities program. The department supplies canned fruit, cheese, ground beef and chicken meat. Salem-Keizer will get $1.3 million in federal commodities this year.

Federal nutrition requirements have become much stricter in the past 20 years. Lloyd-Jones said nearly everything served is different than it would have been for the parents of current students.

Dough is made in-house with whole-wheat flour, and all canned vegetables are in extra light syrup. Chicken nuggets are made with lean, white meat, and there are no deep-fryers: all French fries are oven-baked.

Even the cereal is different. The Lucky Charms and Cocoa Puffs served in school breakfasts are specially made to meet federal nutrition requirements.

"It's a big business," Lloyd-Jones said.

Hermiston melons are the featured produce item for September in Salem-Keizer schools (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

A food service worker loads lunch trays from Cummings Elementary School at Salem-Keizer's food service headquarters. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Some elementary schools are too small to wash their dishes in-house, so dirty cafeteria trays come back to the food services facility for cleaning.

School construction projects over the next five years will expand many elementary school kitchens, in theory eliminating the need to haul trays across town.

It can be a messy task, especially "when they have nachos on Friday that sit until Monday in those trays," Lloyd-Jones said.

Warehouse worker Luis Caraballo shows off kiwi berries that will be served at a handful of Salem-Keizer elementary schools Wednesday. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Each month, there's a featured local fruit or vegetable from Oregon on the menu. September's is watermelons from Hermiston, served Thursdays with lunch.

Feeding students so far has consumed about 5,000 watermelons a week, Lloyd-Jones said.

Food service worker Garry Tell loads Hermiston watermelons into a cart destined for a Salem elementary school. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.