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LEARNING CURVE

Cooked, frozen, trucked: N.Y. facility churns out Boston school lunches

Line workers add fruit to lunches destined for Boston's public schools, at the Whitsons Culinary Group headquarters in Islandia, New York, Oct. 19, 2015. (Johnny Milano for The Boston Globe)
Johnny Milano for The Boston Globe
Line workers added fruit to lunches destined for Boston's public schools.

The Globe is taking a year-long look at promising practices to address a range of social, emotional, and cultural issues in Massachusetts public schools that could be affecting classroom achievement. The series is being produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network, with funding by the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. To see previous coverage, click here.

ISLANDIA, N.Y. — The lunches served each day to about 15,000 students in the Boston Public Schools resemble TV dinners found in the supermarket. Both contain frozen entrees packed in individual serving containers.

But you won’t find Swanson, Healthy Choice, or Hungry Man on Boston’s school lunch menus.

Instead, the school meals are made by hand at a processing center here on Long Island. On any given day, dozens of workers wearing hair nets make dishes such as Cajun fish with brown rice; black beans and tomatoes; macaroni and cheese with a side of peas and carrots; or sweet and sour chicken over brown rice and a side of steamed broccoli.

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Many of the meals are served to Boston students just two days after they were made. School officials say the frozen meals — produced under a three-year contract valued at $36.6 million — are a necessity in a system where about two-thirds of the 125 schools have no kitchens.

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The Globe recently visited the facility to see how the meals are made, and then followed the food to a Boston school to ask students how they liked it.

Whitsons Culinary Group’s food-making center, in a bucolic town of 3,000, produces about 80,000 meals a day. But it feels more like a mom-and-pop operation than a factory.

“I like to call this a restaurant kitchen that goes back to our roots,” said CEO Robert Whitcomb, noting that his family, which runs the company, once operated two restaurants.

On a recent morning, dozens of workers were whipping up whole-wheat rotini with tomato sauce and cheese -- a tricky item for a school menu because many students are put off by the cardboard-like taste of some whole-wheat pasta.

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Tomato sauce mixed with olive oil and garlic simmered in a gigantic kettle. When done, workers pumped the sauce into 10-pound bags and placed them in a tank of icy water.

A few feet over, the rotini cooked in a huge machine equipped with a cork-screw-like device that swished the pasta from side to side. Other batches of the pasta chilled in ice water.

In another room, workers standing behind a conveyer belt assembled the entrees. They placed the chilled pasta and broccoli into individual black serving trays, smothered the pasta in meat sauce, and sprinkled mozzarella and provolone cheese on top. The conveyor belt carried the trays through a contraption that sealed them with plastic, and then through a metal detector to make sure nothing had fallen in.

Workers then placed the meals in the freezer. After nightfall, the packages were moved onto a tractor-trailer truck bound for the Boston Public Schools’ old central kitchen in Dorchester, where they are divided up and delivered to schools.

The frozen entrees are not the only Whitsons-produced options for students at schools without kitchens. Other selections typically include a cold sandwich and a salad made at a community kitchen in Dorchester, where the company rents space.

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Two days after the rotini was prepared on Long Island, more than 500 students filed through two lines in the lunchroom at the Blackstone Innovation School in the South End. Most chose the pasta.

Some students devoured the meal. “It reminds me of my mom’s cooking,” said Jhoneider Herrera, 10.

Others picked at the food with their plastic forks.

An 8-year-old girl with a long ponytail, whose parents did not give permission for her to be named, said she did not like the pasta but insisted that a pear that came with the meal was enough for her.

“I ate a lot of pancakes at home,” she said.

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.