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Rhee Hopes Tastier Food Can Beef Up Finances

By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 15, 2008

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee announced yesterday that she will seek a contractor to upgrade the cafeteria menus with more nutritious and tasty food, saying the in-house program lost $30 million in three years partly because students refuse to buy meals that don't taste good.

School system officials say a takeover of the food service program would enable students to say goodbye to bland pizza, lasagna, chicken nuggets, Salisbury steak and green beans. Instead, they'd get such offerings as fresh wraps, green salads, made-to-order hamburgers, teriyaki beef and Asian stir-fry.

Rhee said she will select the contractor based in part on the opinions of a panel of student taste testers. "The children are the customers that they will have to satisfy," she said.

Many other school systems have profited from their food service programs, or at least broken even, Rhee said. Besides the taste issue, another reason the District has been losing money is that the system has not filed paperwork needed to get federal reimbursement for students receiving free and reduced-price lunches, she said.

"Kids are not eating lunches because they do not like what is being served," Rhee said at a news conference in the cafeteria at Kimball Elementary School in Southeast Washington. "We've heard that loud and clear."

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty said the taste is a frequent complaint among students he meets.

"We have a long way to go to make sure our food is as nutritious as it needs to be and as tasty as it needs to be," Fenty (D) said.

The system's Office of Food and Nutrition Services lost $9.5 million in fiscal 2006 and $10.8 million in fiscal 2007 and is projected to lose $11.6 million in fiscal 2008, officials said. Fewer than 40 percent of high school students consume a school lunch, compared with more than 70 percent in other urban systems, officials said.

"We know we've been losing money," Fenty said, which makes "us one of the worst-managed food programs in the country."

The system, Rhee said, will seek proposals from food contractors next week. The system budgets $27 million annually for the food program, and Rhee said contractors will have to demonstrate that they can reduce costs and provide meals that students like.

The other step, she said, is to ensure students turn in forms for free and reduced-price lunches so the system can be reimbursed by the federal government. Although each meal costs the system $1.68, it receives $2.49 from the federal government, officials said. That, Rhee said, "is where the loss comes in."

Rhee said she wants to begin the new food service program in the fall.

She said the contractor would be required to retain 222 current food service employees.

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