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New Menus Are a 'Quiet Revolution'

With healthier food items, more students are choosing cafeteria meals.

Food in D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) has changed.

Local apples appear on trays. International food days introduce children to a range of cuisine from Nordic to Panamanian. Cafeteria workers are making lasagna from scratch. The tray no longer includes a strawberry milk with as much sugar as a soda. For many, this is proof that the revolution is at hand.

“I can say that we make lasagna in all the Chartwells kitchens and the cafeteria ladies love making lasagna and the kids love eating it. And I definitely think there’s a connection,” said Jeff Mills, the food services director for DCPS.

Chartwells, the food vendor that manages operations for most of DCPS, has been under intense pressure and scrutiny from Mills to provide fewer processed foods in school meals.

Ed Bruske, a food policy blogger and DCPS parent, agreed that the food has improved even though “the center of the plate is still … a frozen processed item.”

To Bruske, the revolution in D.C. does not have to be “an armed revolt.”

“This is sort of a quiet revolution,” he said, since Washington has “sympathetic people in key places.”

Council member Mary Cheh, who wrote the Healthy Schools Act in 2010, frequently checks in on the progress of various programs her legislation helped bolster and fund.

She said while speaking with a group of young students at a local elementary school they told her their favorite menu item was broccoli casserole — much to her surprise.

“Sometimes even I’m astounded by the changes that have been wrought,” she said.

For Cheh, the process of improving the health of students does not need to be a revolution per se.

“I don’t know if it’s a revolution, so much as a change in thinking in an evolutionary way," she said. "Hopefully it will have a big impact.”

Mills said he considers the access to more, healthier meals one of his biggest successes at DCPS.

“We’re feeding more kids. We’re feeding a lot more kids,” he said.

Increases in meal program participation at the middle school and high school levels are particularly notable, he said.

Between the 2010-11 school year and the 2011-12 school year, high school student lunch participation increased by more than 6 percent and middle school participation increased by more than 8 percent, according to data provided by DCPS. That compares to early childhood participation, which had a less than 1 percent decrease, and elementary school participation, which saw a less than 1 percent increase, over the same period.

Melina Hong, a program coordinator in the Office of Food and Nutrition Services at DCPS, wrote in an email to Patch that new salad bar programs in 10 district high schools have proven popular. These schools have seen lunch participation increases of nearly 10 percent over the previous school year and the salad bar meals account for 18 percent of all lunches sold at those schools.

“It won’t work if it’s not done right," Hong stated. "If you’re not serving quality product, kids won’t eat it. But if you really put the time into it, I believe they will eat it, because we’ve seen it.”

Mills believes his attention to detail is paying off.

“What we’re doing here is possible. And I think people need to know that,” Mills said.

Andrea Northup, the founder and director of the D.C. Farm to School Network, sees much of the change as positive and agrees that food vendor Chartwells has made “incredible gains” in terms of what they are serving.

“But there is inevitably the conflict of interest that comes with a for-profit entity. When school systems are in control they have the best interest in terms of finances and health of school children” in mind, Northup said.

For her, the revolution needs to take the next step: DCPS needs to get back into the food game.

What’s next for food at DCPS? Will food become a core competency of the schools? Check back tomorrow for Part 5 of our series on D.C. school food.

B Wagner April 19, 2012 at 02:07 PM
Great story Shaun - and thanks to Mary Cheh

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