Ken Choi, chief operating officer for I.L. Creations in Rockville, has a good idea what federal workers like to eat. The food service company runs cafeterias at the Energy Department, the Eisenhower Executive Office Building and the State Department, and while I.L. Creations has been touted for its healthful offerings, Choi knows that some of his most popular items include foods dipped in a hot-oil bath: fried chicken, fried catfish and french fries.
Which explains why I.L. Creations’ newest government contract presents such a challenge. The Agriculture Department — the agency tasked with, among other things, improving public health — made a groundbreaking decision last year when soliciting bids for cafeteria vendors at its headquarters: The USDA would go fryer-less. As in not a single deep-fat fryer in the department’s Whitten and South building cafeterias, which every month serve more than 40,000 people , including members of the public.
And that’s just the most obvious change at the revamped USDA cafeterias, which debut today. The agency — one of the chief architects of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which counsels citizens to reduce their intake of red meat and salt — has fully embraced its own recommendations (possibly this time without alienating lawmakers from livestock states who were furious last year over the USDA’s suggestion that employees avoid meat one day a week).
The new USDA cafeterias will automatically serve diners 100 percent whole-wheat breads and pastas unless customers specifically ask for white-bread slices or some other option. One station in the main cafeteria in the South Building will prepare food that conforms to the low-sodium, low-fat, low-cholesterol and low-calorie requirements of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans; the station will also display a daily MyPlate example to model the basics of a proper meal — not that anyone will be required to follow it.
There will even be a full-time dietitian on-site to answer employee questions, which Choi believes is key in the transition to a fryer-less world. After all, USDA workers can easily sidestep the whole healthful-eating program; they could, for example, take a short trip down Independence Avenue to the Energy Department cafeteria, where the deep fryers are still bubbling.
“I think it’s really vital that we have education,” Choi said. “Because you can’t just give them a different option that’s healthy and tell them to buy it and eat it.”
The federal government had already been moving in a more healthful direction with its cafeterias, part of the Obama administration’s mission to shrink the American waistline. About three years ago, as part of a plan to improve the nutrition and sustainability of the food served to government workers, the General Services Administration, which contracts with vendors at 32 federal cafeterias in this region, banned trans fats and limited deep-fried entrees “to no more than one choice per day.”
The GSA also started requiring vendors to reduce sodium levels across the board: 230 milligrams or less for vegetable dishes and 480 milligrams or less for 40 percent of the remaining dishes on the menu. (The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day for people without hypertension or other health problems.) What’s more, the GSA mandates that 25 percent of a vendor’s product line be organic, local or sustainably grown.