Eating Green

On Capitol Hill, A Vote for Edibility and the Environment

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Congress is back in session this week, soon to tackle such solemn matters as the destruction of CIA videotapes and the credit crunch. But in the halls of the Longworth House Office Building, much of the chatter is about another weighty matter: the new cafeteria food.

As staffers briskly walk the long corridors, they stop to poke into Goodies, the renamed and renovated Longworth Convenience Store, which now features organic chocolate along with the old Cup O' Noodles. Or they peep into the rehabbed Creamery, formerly Scoops ice cream parlor. The whole place has an aura of curious excitement, like a college during orientation week. (Then again, that may be because many of the staffers look as if they could still be in school themselves.)

Since members departed for the winter recess, the House cafeterias, which turn out 2.5 million meals a year, have undergone extreme makeovers. Longworth Cafe, the largest in the complex, was transformed first. Over the weekend of Dec. 15, the old salad bar was swapped for one made of sustainable materials, "green" signs were installed and entrees such as mystery meatloaf and mashed potatoes disappeared, replaced by crispy chicken with goat cheese and spinach and a "panzanella" station, where staffers can build a salad of marinated figs, prosciutto and feta cheese.

As of Monday, Restaurant Associates -- the new contractor, which also supplies food to the Kennedy Center and the National Gallery -- had also reopened the cafeterias in the Rayburn and Cannon buildings and the Members' Dining Room.

If only more congressional work were done as swiftly.

The changes are part of the larger Green the Capitol project, an initiative of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that aims to make the House carbon neutral by the end of the session. The dining service was a prime target, and not only because of the 1950s-era food. Cafeteria waste accounted for half of the estimated 250 metric tons of trash the House sends to landfills annually. Now the plates, cutlery, cups -- everything except the soup and coffee lids -- is compostable and turned to pulp on-site. In addition, the cafeteria offers fair-trade coffee, certified sustainable seafood and as much organic, locally grown food as it can deliver.

"I don't know much about the greening, but the food is a lot better," said Caitlin Lenihan, press secretary for Rep. Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.), standing in line at the panzanella station. "I'd stopped coming a while back, but I've already had the pizza and the barbecue. It's all improved."

Other staffers agreed, giving high marks to the quality and variety of food. (And this reporter can vouch for their good taste. The panzanella salad, while a far cry from the Italian bread salad for which it is named, was fresh, and the Asian shrimp wrap was nicely balanced by crunchy Napa cabbage and carrot slaw in ginger dressing.)

But the embrace of change, so touted on the campaign trail, clearly has not quite filtered down to the aides who keep the Capitol wheels in motion. Along with the praise came the inevitable griping -- off the record, of course.

The No. 1 topic of complaint: that biodegradable cutlery. "Funky," "wacky" and "weird texture" were common descriptions. Put too much pressure on the fork, several staffers noted, and it snaps in half. "I even hear the spoons melt in hot drinks because they're made of cornstarch," said one staffer. (A test of that claim proved it was untrue: the first cafeteria urban legend.)

Complaint No. 2: the prices. Under particular scrutiny by caffeine-fueled aides were the bottles of Starbucks Frappuccino. One staffer was so incensed that he e-mailed his friends a chart illustrating how the new $3.30 price is 47 percent higher than the $2.25 the bottles sold for in the old cafeteria and 4.8 percent higher than the approximately $3.15 they sell for in Starbucks stores. "The wraps are more expensive," said a Republican aide. "The main entrees are a little more. I'm not sure about the pizza, because I never would have eaten the pizza before."

A reasonable complaint -- if it were true. With the exception of those Frappuccinos, the price hike is in their heads, says Aidan Murphy, Restaurant Associates' vice president of operations. All like items cost the same, he said; only new dishes, such as those from the twice-weekly sushi station, are more expensive than items on the old menus.

And predictably, there was a resistance to change itself. "This is an improvement, but there are little quirks you have to get used to," said one senior Democratic staffer who visits the cafeteria every day. "I used to get this yogurt in the morning. They don't have it anymore. They have organic yogurt, which I don't want."

The green efforts are "generally a good thing, and we support it," the aide said. "But I'm still a little focused on what happened to my Dannon."

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