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The Shrink-Wrapped Roots of the Revolution

In the lunch lines in D.C. schools, the food was worse than many imagined.

Although D.C. public school students have ready access to nutritional meals today, not long ago that wasn't the case.

“It wasn’t more than three years ago that the food the kids were eating in D.C. Schools was ... I think ‘atrocious’ is not too strong a word,” said Ed Bruske, a food policy blogger and DCPS parent. He has been an outspoken advocate for healthy, whole foods in public schools for several years.

Breakfasts were sugar-filled: Pop Tarts, Otis Spunkmeyer muffins and strawberry milk. Meatloaf and chicken nugget lunches came in boxes wrapped in plastic.

“The message that sends to the kids is what? Food comes out of a box with it sealed in plastic,” Bruske said.

During Michelle Rhee’s reign over DCPS, she decided the school system needed to get out of the food business and let the professionals handle it. DCPS contracted out food services to Chartwells, a school meals vendor, with the hopes of saving the District money and the promise of “fresh cooked” meals.

“I stepped in thinking naively that fresh-cooked meant cooking from scratch,” Bruske said.

Bruske visited the cafeteria at his daughter’s school and blogged about that experience.

He went in expecting the cafeteria workers to be “cooking from scratch.” Instead there were still cafeteria workers armed with box cutters instead of chef’s knives. The packaged meals, delivered via trucks and refrigerated in their cardboard boxes en masse, were then re-heated in giant industrial heaters and steamers in the school kitchens. There wasn’t even a working oven range on site, Bruske wrote in 2010.

Items Bruske encountered during that week included: five-pound bags of “beef crumbles,” five-pound bags of pre-shredded cheese, six-pound bags of scrambled eggs pre-cooked and frozen, tubs of Smart Balance Buttery Spread and the list goes on.

“It turns out, it was their spin on frozen processed food that comes in a box and gets reheated in the steamer or the oven or whatever. The famous chicken nuggets and tater tots, beef crumbles and all that stuff,” Bruske said about Chartwells’ food.

The blogger said the sharp difference between his expectations and the reality pushed him to start asking questions, to write about the state of school food and to advocate for healthier, fresher options in schools.

In January 2010 he wrote a series of six blog posts entitled “Tales from a D.C. School Kitchen” in which he described the state of food in his daughter’s elementary school.

In the second blog post he wrote, meals were “constructed around foods that have been heavily processed and reconstituted in distant factories, then shipped pre-cooked and frozen. Meal components have been industrially designed to require the least amount of time and minimal skill to prepare.”

The reaction?

People were “scandalized,” Bruske said.

“Nobody had any idea that the food was that bad in DC schools,” he said (emphasis his).

Around the same time Bruske was writing his scandalizing blog posts, Andrea Northup was organizing and growing the D.C. Farm to School Network, Council member Mary Cheh was working to pass the Healthy Schools Act and new Food Services Director at DCPS Jeff Mills was beginning the arduous process or reviewing the Chartwells menu.

Check back tomorrow to learn more about the “revolutionary” ideas and efforts of these leaders.

Yesterday: A Food Revolution Grows in D.C. Schools.

Amanda M. Socci, Freelance Writer April 17, 2012 at 05:16 PM
Thank you so much for this insightful and well-written article discussing the quality of cafeteria food in Washington, D.C. schools. The same may be said for northern Virginia schools as well. Health food advocates have quite a job ahead of them!

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