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The Revolution Will Be Standardized

Now that D.C. Public Schools have proven cafeterias can have healthier food, the challenge now is to scale it across the entire system.

The food in D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) is better. But there are those who want more. Namely, they want DCPS to get back in the kitchen and get cooking.

Andrea Northup, the director and founder of D.C. Farm to School Network, believes that a for-profit contractor running the school food program will “inevitably” have a “conflict of interest” between healthy food and healthy kids, and the company bottom line. For Northup, DCPS getting back into managing its food services is the best way to provide healthy, local options at affordable prices.

Council member Mary Cheh is on the same page. In her Healthy Schools Act she called for a “central facility”  where DCPS could “prepare, process, grow, and store healthy and nutritious foods for schools and nonprofit organizations.” (Healthy Schools Act of 2010, Sec. 204)  

Cheh said she has been to the D.C. Central Kitchen catering location that makes food fresh daily for seven schools as part of a pilot program. “What they do over there is scalable,” she said.

She said she has made it clear to Mills that she is “so keen” on scaling a fresh-made model for all of D.C.

Ed Bruske, a food policy blogger, is of the same mind.

Despite former School Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s assertion that food is not a “core competency” for the schools, Bruske said there is “no real reason why D.C. public schools can’t be running their own food service program.” He admits that the next step is a big one.

Northup said the schools can continue improving food while operating within a vendor contract, but there will be a limit. Before DCPS reaches that limit officials need to put in place a plan for what will be a “multimillion-dollar investment” says Northup.

But there’s the pesky matter of finding the money.

“I have to get over this, little—or maybe not so little—obstacle about how we fund it at the outset,” Cheh said.

Northup said her impression is that DCPS has not been doing much in the way of long-term planning to make this sort of an investment. And without an articulated “long-term vision” it is “difficult to grow in leaps and bounds,” Northup said.

Since Patch’s conversations with Northup, Cheh, Bruske and Food Services Director Jeff Mills, school food has come back into the spotlight.

According to Bruske’s blog, Mills sent the District Council some 1,500 pages of documents about the current contract with Chartwells, the primary food services vendor in the District. He also offered a PowerPoint presentation on how the contract is costing D.C. too much money, to the tune of $14 million food service deficit, and why D.C. should start running its own food services again.

Mills told Bruske that Chartwells meals were costing the District significantly more per meal when compared to the two fresher, more local pilot program. A Chartwells meal runs $4.21,  D.C. Central Kitchen $3.06 and Revolution Foods costs $2.87.

But , Bruske writes, DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson told Cheh “the views in the PowerPoint do not reflect the direction that DCPS food services is moving in….”

Instead, Henderson ordered Mills and his team to put out a new request for proposals for new contracts with food vendors to manage DCPS meal services. The RFP was due April 10.

When Patch spoke with Cheh in November she acknowledged that D.C. taking on its own food services could be a challenge and that there would be those who would prefer to keep things the way they are.

“Sometimes we have to imagine it and then we have to suspend objection until we see it in operation. Because you can always think of reasons for ‘no,’” Cheh said about her detractors.

“I think if we can push, push, push, we can do this.”

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