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A Food Revolution Grows in D.C. Schools

Parents, politicians and administrators are pushing for more nutrition in the cafeteria.

Panamanian beef empanadas, garlicky kale, cheesy grits and Cinnamon Toast Crunch: these are all items being served in D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) in April. Though some might be surprising, they tell a story that the world of food in D.C. schools is evolving. Some believe a slow-burn revolution is at hand.

Today, DCPS offers as many as three meals a day.

Advocates hope the schools' captive audience makes access to healthful foods an equalizer, allowing all kids to develop a palate for nutrition at a young age, not just those who can afford it.

The State of D.C. Public School Food

Some of these changes are a result of the D.C. Healthy Schools Act, which the District Council passed unanimously in May 2010. Council member Mary Cheh was the driving force behind the legislative push for better school foods.

Under the act, the DCPS meals program expanded to include breakfast and supper programs. The act also pays to cover children who, based on their economic status, would normally pay a reduced rate for meals rather than receive the meals for free. Also, the legislation includes funding to source from local farmers for many of the products that appear on lunch trays.

As Andrea Northup, the founder and director of the D.C. Farm to School Network,  explained, “Many of the kids that are eating the school meals are actually not essentially getting a meal after they eat at school. And so by getting more healthy, more local, more fresh foods in school, it’s an equalizer in terms of access to these types of things.”

When former DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee first came to DCPS in 2007 she quickly moved to contract food services to an outside vendor in part because the school system had been losing money while operating the service itself.

“They just didn’t have a grip on the food or the management of the program,” said Ed Bruske, a food policy blogger and DCPS parent.

DCPS contracted with food vendor Chartwells to take over school food.

Though Rhee has become renowned in school food reform circles for her utterance that food services is “not a core competency” of the schools, she did want DCPS to be ahead of the curve when it came to healthy menu options and innovative programs like school gardens.

Rhee hand-picked former NYC restaurateur Jeff Mills to reform the school lunch program as the new food services director. Since coming to DCPS in January 2010, Mills has had a direct impact on the menus offered in schools from the early childhood level up through high school.

Mills took it upon himself to go through the Chartwells menu offerings item by item to find the healthiest, best tasting options available.

“We’re very conscious of the quality of the food that we’re serving. Meaning, I taste everything,” Mills said. And he means everything.

During the summer before the 2010/2011 school year, Mills said he tasted somewhere between 50 and 60 different types of chicken.

“I taste every kind of chicken we can get our hands on to make sure the quality of that product is the best we can possibly get,” he said.

Mills canned the flavored milk, switching schools over to skim and one percent only. He did milk tastings, his staff did milk tastings, the kids did milk tastings. He was committed to getting it right.

Partly because of the challenge DCPS posed for its food service vendor, Mills created a pilot program for the 2010/2011 school year, awarding seven schools each to two vendors to run food operations outside of the Chartwells contract. The program was extended for the 2011/2012 school year.

Revolution Foods offers fresh, portable meals produced daily at their facility in Cheverly, Md. DC Central Kitchen’s catering arm makes fresh meals daily.

”We just wanted to see how other vendors would handle what we were doing,” he explained.

He acknowledged that other food services directors are probably not as hands on as he is, but with a background in the restaurant industry, putting food at the center of his job made sense.

“I think it is becoming this program that’s more than just, ‘hey here’s lunch.’.”

But that was not always the case. Check back tomorrow for part II of our series on food in D.C. Schools.

Judith Bunnell April 16, 2012 at 12:27 PM
Check out Wilson high school food service! Daily fresh salad bar, breakfast every day got anyone who wants it, they are working on a garden
Steve Dingledine April 16, 2012 at 05:50 PM
Classroom educators are pushing as well. We have fruit and veggie "parties" in place of added-sugar treats, which shockingly constitute 16% of the average kid's daily caloric intake. We also have an ongoing discussion on the benefits of healthy nutrition and exercise.
Shaun Courtney (Editor) April 24, 2012 at 02:57 PM
It's so great to hear that teachers are making these efforts a part of the learning experience. Thanks for sharing, Steve!
Shaun Courtney (Editor) April 24, 2012 at 02:58 PM
I've heard the salad bars are very popular, though the salad dressing might be used a little too generously :)

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