D.C. schools food director leaves job


Jeff Mills visits the kitchen at Savoy Elementary School on March 9, 2010. (Susan Biddle/For the Washington Post)
January 15, 2013

Jeff Mills, the director of the D.C. public schools’ food services program whose efforts to overhaul cafeteria meals made him popular with parents, has left his job, officials said Tuesday.

Mills had clashed with D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson over a multimillion-dollar contract with the school system’s largest meals vendor, according to food policy blogger Ed Bruske, who first reported on that tension last year.

Mills wanted to stop outsourcing meals preparation to Chartwells-Thompson Hospital­ity and bring food service operations in-house, Bruske said. Henderson is reluctant to make such a move, saying that the school system has experts in teaching and learning, not serving meals.

Mills’s departure comes less than a month after a D.C. Council hearing at which lawmakers excoriated the school system’s management over its money-losing contract with Chartwells, which provides meals to almost all city schools.

But council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), one of the fiercest critics of the Chartwells contract, said Mills had pushed to make school meals healthier and called his departure “a real loss.”

“He was fantastic at his job,” said Cheh, who sponsored a 2010 law that called for more-nutritious meals. “He was really committed to making sure that kids had these healthy meals. He wanted to make it work, and he was making it work.”

The news Web site DCist.com reported Tuesday that it had confirmed that Mills was fired. The Washington Post could not independently confirm that account, and school system officials — citing a policy against discussing personnel matters — would only say that Mills was no longer an employee. Mills did not respond to requests for comment.

A former New York City restaurateur, Mills arrived in Washington in 2010 after then-D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee handpicked him for the job. Some healthy-food advocates at the time questioned Mills’s hiring, according to news reports, citing his lack of experience with the byzantine world of school food.

Under his leadership, the school system eliminated many processed foods and stopped serving sugary flavored milk. It also revamped menus to incorporate more local produce and introduced a pilot program emphasizing fresh, made-from-scratch meals.

The changes brought national attention, including from celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, who called Mills a “food revolutionary” aiming to “confront DC’s childhood obesity crisis by ensuring that 45,000 students have access to high quality school meals and are empowered to make healthy choices.”

Fairfax County parents interested in improving their children’s school meals sought advice from Mills.

“He spoke with such passion about what he was trying to do in terms of improving the health of food for all D.C. kids,” said JoAnne Hammermaster, founder of the Fairfax advocacy group Real Food for Kids. “He inspired us.”

Many District parents admire Mills, and several praised his work during the December council hearing.

“I applaud Jeff Mills and his team, who have worked diligently on behalf of our kids to push for the healthiest and best tasting meals possible, looking beyond the status quo and envisioning better ways of operation to benefit our children and the District’s taxpayers,” wrote Becky Levin, the mother of a student at Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan, in her prepared testimony.

At the hearing, Levin, Cheh and others argued that the school system could operate its meal program more efficiently by bringing it in-house. Contractors have run the program since 2008, when Rhee decided to outsource it to save money.

Between 2008 and 2012, Chartwells served fewer meals than anticipated but charged the city millions of dollars more than initially agreed upon, according to an independent audit. The District lost more than $10 million each year on its Chartwells-run food services program.

Chartwells officials last month said the audit was riddled with errors, and argued that costs had increased more than anticipated because of the District’s push for healthier meals.

Other regional school systems that operate their meals programs in-house, such as in Montgomery and Fairfax counties, regularly break even or make a profit on school lunches.

Henderson expressed dissatisfaction with Chartwells in early 2012, but the school system has since signed a new contract with the company that the chancellor has said is more favorable.

“We have different contract terms that we believe are going to save us quite a bit of money,” Henderson said earlier this month on WAMU’s (88.5 FM) “Kojo Nnamdi Show.”

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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