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To fix school lunch program, D.C. turns to restaurateur

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 23, 2010; 9:36 AM

Black-and-white photos of students laughing with first lady Michelle Obama and White House chefs Sam Kass and Bill Yosses hang in the entryway of Kimball Elementary School in Southeast Washington. Kimball's students have been invited twice to visit the White House because their school has a vegetable garden. What it doesn't have is a kitchen.

Instead, warming ovens and walk-in refrigerators line one wall of the cafeteria, which is painted in bright colors called Safety Blue and Safety Yellow. Cooks roll hot food across the room from the ovens to the serving line, a sometimes-tricky maneuver during a busy lunch period.

"We can fix that," Jeff Mills, the new director of food service for the District's public schools, told the principal. He could find an engineer to do some rewiring. Then he sighed. "But it's a Band-Aid. At the 122 schools, there are 122 problems. We have to try to look at the big picture."

Mills's previous claim to fame was as a New York restaurateur and consultant who had a cameo on HBO's "Sex and the City." His now-closed hot spot, the Biltmore Room, won three stars from the New York Times. Since Chancellor Michelle Rhee handpicked him to remake the service, Mills has been trying to untangle the Alice-in-Wonderland-like world of school food, a curious system of subsidies and standards that can take years to master, let alone manipulate.

The stakes are high. The District of Columbia has the highest rate of adolescent obesity in the country, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Like many other urban districts, the city's public school system has been criticized for serving up a steady diet of ultra-processed and sugary foods.

Since taking the reins in January, Mills has toured the area's models of school-food reform. He visited Great Kids Farms, an educational center run by the Baltimore City Public Schools. He ate lunch at the Washington Jesuit Academy, where meals are cooked from scratch and many of the ingredients are sourced locally. This month, Mills made a trip to Berkeley, Calif., courtesy of Chez Panisse chef-restaurateur Alice Waters, to see the famed Edible Schoolyard. His goal, he said, is to create the best school food service possible.

But how? Mills is conducting a facilities assessment; as Kimball Elementary showed, every school has its own set of challenges. He is launching several pilot programs, including one to expand the number of schools that serve breakfast in the classroom. More than anything, he says, he wants to put more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains and fewer processed foods on school lunch trays.

Privately, some school-foods reform advocates worry that Mills, 36, might not be up to the task. He is hooked on buzzwords such as "local" and "community" without a clear plan about how to integrate the concepts into the school food program, they say. Others worry that the task of transforming a money-losing program that serves cheap, processed food into a profitable one that serves locally sourced, from-scratch meals might be too much to ask of an enthusiastic newbie. "He's not experienced in school food," said Ed Bruske, a food writer, gardener and personal chef, who posted a searing indictment of the District's food service on his blog, the Slow Cook, and helped launch the Better D.C. School Food blog. "So the big question that hangs over all this is, how does he translate a restaurant background into serving more than 40,000 kids?"

Anthony Tata, the D.C. Public Schools' chief operating officer, said Mills's outsider status was a key reason he was chosen for the position, which had been empty for more than a year. Of 107 applicants, 18 were interviewed, Tata said: "Jeff showed me that he was able to be innovative but cost-conscious, that he could balance the quality of the food with the business efficiency."

Mills says he understands the concerns about his background but points to pioneering school food service director Tony Geraci of Baltimore, who also had run restaurants before changing careers. "It's normal for people to feel I am an unconventional choice," Mills said. "The most progressive and well-run programs in the country right now are being led by people with my type of background. Owning and operating my own restaurants, working with local farmers, sourcing local foods and being able to market that product is what DCPS needs right now."

The challenge is daunting. D.C. Public Schools serves an average of 12,600 breakfasts and 27,500 lunches per school day. About 70 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-priced meals, which means the federal government kicks in money for their food. But the program is still a perennial money drain. It was projected to lose $11.6 million in 2008, prompting Rhee to hand over operations to a private company, Chartwells-Thompson School Dining Services. As part of its contract, Chartwells reduced that loss to $6 million in 2008-09 and gets incentives to cut losses further.

Mills divides his goals into two phases. First, he wants to get more food to more students. That's the idea behind the breakfast-in-the-classroom pilot, which will expand from one to a dozen schools on April 7. Traditionally, students who wanted breakfast had to arrive 45 minutes early and troop down to the cafeteria. When the meal is served in the classroom, students come just 20 minutes early, and the teachers are there to supervise and encourage them to eat. "I see they are more attentive, and I think they enjoy it, too," said Desiree Lucas, a fifth-grade teacher at James A. Garfield Elementary in Southeast, the first school to offer the program. Since the program's launch in November, the number of students eating breakfast at Garfield has jumped 20 percent.

"The first thing I can do is make sure these kids are eating three meals a day," Mills said. He is also working to offer ready-to-go breakfast boxes to secondary school students and to replace the after-school snack with an ambitious supper program.

The second phase -- improving the food -- will be more complicated, Mills said. To that end, he's working on a pilot program that will create gardens at as many as a dozen schools by the next school year with the aim of inspiring students to love their fruits and vegetables; hence the trip to Berkeley. Twenty schools will offer vegetarian menu options by June, up from five.

Details are vague, but the projects are generating buzz. "Now Michelle Rhee is using words like 'healthier and better school food,' " said Andrea Northup, coordinator of the D.C. Farm to School Network, an advocacy group. "I was able to talk to [Anthony Tata], who is embracing these concepts that a year ago you wouldn't be hearing anyone talk about at DCPS central."

Major pieces of Mills's plan are to establish a kind of super kitchen, where the school system could store and process produce from local farmers, and to set up a greenhouse and small farm, such as the one in Baltimore, and perhaps even a commercial bakery. Last week, D.C. Councilwoman Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) unveiled the latest iteration of her Healthy Schools Act. In addition to introducing strict nutrition standards for school meals, the bill now includes a proposal to convert a city building into a central kitchen.

A hearing for the bill is scheduled for Friday. Cheh is hopeful the bill can be approved by May, in time for schools to revise and renew food contracts, said legislative counsel Andrew Newman.

Baltimore's Geraci is watching with interest. "He has good intentions," Geraci said of Mills. "And I think he has the fundamental business skills to pull this off. My advice to him is to stay true to the mission. It's always about the kids."

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