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Well, fed: We try the food at U.S. government cafeterias

By Jane Black
Wednesday, July 14, 2010; E01

Uncle Sam wants you to eat better. And frankly, he has a point. In 38 states, more than 25 percent of the adult population is obese. One in three American children is considered overweight or obese. Last year, obesity-related diseases cost the United States about $150 billion.

But change, the old saying goes, begins at home. And so the federal government is trying to soup up the food served to its workers, including the approximately 600,000 here in Washington. This spring, the General Services Administration rewrote the specs for its cafeteria contracts to encourage the use of healthful food and organic and locally sourced ingredients. If the new guidelines succeed, the term "government cheese" could take on a whole new meaning.

So far, new food service contracts have been signed for the State Department headquarters in Washington and six other federal buildings across the country. Next up: the Interior Department, which hopes to finish its cafeteria renovation this fall. All told, the GSA handles food service contracts at about 350 cafeterias nationwide. The Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs are responsible for their own food service.

It all sounds great. But how did it taste? We checked out the new State Cafe plus six other federal cafeterias in the Washington area and rated the food based on the availability of healthful options, variety and, of course, the taste. Only one cafeteria got our top grade. At the others, there's still a long way to go, baby.

That was true for the new and improved State Cafe. On the day we were given the official tour, the state of State's cafeteria was excellent. The prepared salads were fresh and delicious. Nutrition information was posted at almost every station. A nutritionist was on duty to answer questions, and a couple of farmers sold local berries, greens and squash. Describing our subsequent, unsupervised visit, however, requires a high level of diplomacy. Let's just say that China could reasonably consider sanctions against us based on the insulting interpretation of its cuisine on the international station. Moreover, much of the nutrition information we'd seen earlier had disappeared. No employee we spoke with (admittedly an unscientific sample) had seen the mini farmers market again. "It's better than it was," said one senior official. "But it still sucks."

How federal government cafeterias stack up

Supreme Court Cafeteria

U.S. Department of Agriculture South Cafe

The Cafe at State

U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Roundhouse Cafe

Longworth Cafe

Pentagon Dining Room

National Institutes of Health Clinical Center Cafeterias

Federal workers: What do you like and dislike about your own cafeteria? Weigh in by adding your comments here.

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