Correction to This Article
The article incorrectly said that the National School Lunch Program serves 31 million lunches a year. It serves 31 million students. The article also referred to the General Services Administration, the agency that is announcing the first of the new cafeteria contracts, as the General Service Administration.

GSA set to announce new federal cafeteria contracts

In October, first lady Michelle Obama worked with students for the fall harvest of the White House Kitchen Garden.
In October, first lady Michelle Obama worked with students for the fall harvest of the White House Kitchen Garden. (Marvin Joseph/the Washington Post)
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By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The General Service Administration will announce this week the winner of the first in a series of new federal cafeteria contracts that encourage the use of healthier food, organic and locally procured food, and advanced recycling and waste management programs. The effort is part of an administration drive to improve the health of federal employees and direct government dollars to companies that embrace green practices.

The new vendor will serve the State Department's three dining rooms. But GSA also contracts for food service at 350 cafeterias at agencies including the Internal Revenue Service and the departments of Education, Energy, Interior and Veterans Affairs. Sales at these cafeterias total hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

The initiative was launched last May after President Obama met with corporate chief executives to discuss health-care reform. "A big part of what we're interested in is using the purchasing power of the federal government to make healthy and sustainable food financially viable," said Ezekiel Emanuel, a health-care policy adviser to the Office of Management and Budget who worked with GSA to develop the new specifications.

Also this week, Michelle Obama will announce a federal initiative to fight childhood obesity that will focus on improving the National School Lunch Program that serves 31 million lunches annually.

The State Department's will not be the first green federal cafeteria. In January 2008, the House of Representatives' food service, which serves about 2.5 million meals annually, got an extreme makeover. Mystery meatloaf and mashed potatoes were replaced by crispy chicken with goat cheese and spinach. There's also a "panzanella" station, where staffers could build a salad of marinated figs and prosciutto.

The new contract does not mandate specific practices. But it gives preferences to vendors that offer healthful food choices and incorporate sustainable practices such as providing fresh options in every product line, using healthful cooking techniques (a ban of transfats, for example) and educating consumers about eating well. The contract also encourages vendors to source local and organic food as well as green cleaning products.

Previous contracts required only that vendors follow the USDA Dietary Guidelines for variety in menu offerings. The new language will be incorporated into all new contracts as the current ones expire. Most federal food-service contracts are for between three and six years.

Many federal employees will cheer the changes. The State Department has "one of the worst cafeterias of the whole federal government," according to one senior official, with mainstays like tasteless pasta salads, limp spinach and glutinous squares of ham and turkey. Even agencies with time left on their cafeteria contracts may see some changes soon, said Stephen Leeds, GSA's senior sustainability officer. In September, GSA launched a pilot program at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building to bring more healthful choices -- such as yogurt, baked chips and sugar-free drinks -- to vending machines and snack bars. To count as healthful, the items must have fewer than 250 calories and less than 35 percent fat, 10 percent saturated fat and 350 milligrams of sodium. Already, two-thirds of the purchases are the more healthful options.

"This shows there's a desire to have healthier options. And we are looking at ways to bring these things into existing contracts," Leeds said.

New contracts could improve the food. But can they move markets?

Perry Plumart, the director of special projects for the House environmental effort, said that over the last two years the House has diverted 660 tons of trash from landfills and helped to create markets for compostable plates, cups and cutlery. When the House sought out a biodegradable cookie bag, Jessup, Md.-based firm Alpha Products developed one from corn resin. The bag is now a standard product.

"We believe by setting an example that we can move the market," said GSA's Leeds.

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