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Food Revolution Challenges the Status Quo

'Healthy food doesn’t have to be bland or tasteless. It can taste good, but you really need to take the time.'

Leaders, individuals and groups both within and outside the school system have been working to change the way food is bought, distributed, consumed and valued in D.C. schools. Their foes take on differing forms, but can be summed up as the status quo.

“So many things have to be in place for a kid to put a bite of local sweet potato in their mouth,” said Andrea Northup, the founder and director of the D.C. Farm to School Network.

This sweet potato is a great way to understand the various challenges of school food: buy-in that the sweet potato should be there in the first place; money, vendor sourcing, logisitics of preparation within the school; and kids’ willingness to eat the items on their trays.

It is “difficult to even start making a change when there are so many things that are wrong,” she said.

Northup said she began as a “connector” for the existing groups and people who wanted to make a change. She formed the Farm to School Network to increase and promote communication among and between actors and advocates in school food.

With the network in place, she targeted policy makers and leaders in school reform, first to get them to buy into the need for healthier, local food and then to change what appears on the trays in the cafeteria each day.  

“School food is such a broken system that it’s always going to be difficult to implement change because you’re up against this behemoth, high-inertia system,” Northup said.  

D.C. Council member Mary Cheh, the author of the D.C. Healthy Schools Act, said she receives a “good deal of criticism” for her efforts at reform. Cheh describes the act as a legislative realization of her philosophy that DCPS should serve the “whole child” and that the “whole school” should be a place of learning.

She pushed her colleagues on the council to pass her bill, which they did unanimously in May 2010, and she cajoled top DCPS officials to embrace it. Cheh likened shifting cultural norms to a “big ship” that must be “turned by degrees.”

DCPS Food Services Director Jeff Mills has been working incrementally to change the system since he took on his role in January 2010. He had a background in restaurants, not school food administration, and he came into a role that had been vacant, so there was no predecessor to guide the way.

“It was good in some ways because I got to pave my own trail,” Mills said. And blaze he did.

He started working within the confines of the system, asking Chartwells, the existing food vendor, to cut down on the processed and frozen foods rampant in schools at the time.

He said his decision to essentially micromanage the menu posed a challenge "especially for Chartwells,” the primary DCPS food vendor.  

“Our menus that we have here with Chartwells are completely different from any other Chartwells menus in any other school district in the country,” he said.

Mills and his staff faced other challenges. They needed time to create specialized menus. They needed to find enough local vendors at the right price point. And they had to push against a food service industry that thrives on buying branded, processed items in bulk.

Despite the challenges, Mills remains positive. “Healthy food doesn’t have to be bland or tasteless. It can taste good, but you really need to take the time,” he said.

Now that Northup has people like Mills and Cheh pushing for buy-in and better products, she’s working on the kids themselves; they are after all the consumers of all this food.  

“Cafeterias are not a place of learning in DCPS,” Northup said.

Ed Bruske, a food policy blogger and DCPS parent, shared a similar sentiment.

He sat in his daughter’s cafeteria at lunch for two years and described it as “chaos.”

“They are just trying to maintain some kind of order the food is like low on the agenda,” he said.

Northup said part of the problem is that there are only so many hours in a day for the educators and staff in D.C. schools and more often than not, teaching to standardized tests trumps all.  When officials and staff are worried about Math and English scores, modeling proper eating habits and talking about sweet potatoes is not even on the radar.

“Teachers are just stretched to the max,” Northup said.

The D.C. Farm to School Network has been working to offer activities and lessons both within and outside the classroom. They offer field trips to bring kids to farms and Northup said she is working on developing lesson plans that will fit within the curriculum so teachers can offer lessons on food while pushing for better English scores.

With all these actors working within and around the system to change it, where does the revolution stand? How do healthy food advocates rate their progress? Check back tomorrow for part IV of our series.

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Judith Bunnell April 22, 2012 at 11:58 AM
I would love to hear some kids comment on what they think of all this! Young and older and from different schools.

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