U.S. Department of Agriculture South Cafe

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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

U.S. Department of Agriculture South Cafe

Grade: D

"Are you reviewing the food here?" a U.S. Department of Agriculture employee asked when she spied me scribbling notes near the salad bar. "Because it's disgusting. We are the U.S. Department of Agriculture. There is no reason why the food can't be appetizing and appealing."

The woman (who subsequently asked not to be named) had a point. Secretary Tom Vilsack has taken pains to point out that his agency represents everyone who eats. But inside its own vast cafeteria, the USDA is hardly setting an example.

Sure, there was plenty that a PR guy could tout as healthful. There were 100-calorie snack packs, but inside them were processed cookies and chips. Calories were posted at the salad bar and the grill. But among the options were a cheese quesadilla with 780 calories and 53 grams of fat. Slices of pizza ($2.79) had whole-wheat crusts but tasted just like the school food the agency has vowed to overhaul. The salad bar (41 cents per ounce) was a throwback to the 1970s, with limp greens, mayo-laden tuna, baby corn and bacon bits.

Even the cafeteria's dedicated healthful-eating station disappointed. A 300-calorie entree of chicken with peach-cilantro salsa and orange-glazed spinach ($6.29) sounded tasty. But one look explained why no one lined up to order it. We did and found that the meat was as dry as sawdust, the salsa tasted more of onion than peach or cilantro and there wasn't even a whisper of orange in the spinach.

Our only winner was the Chipotle Chicken Spa Sandwich ($5.79). We weren't thrilled that the cook only reheated the precooked meat, but we had to admit that the spicy sandwich, topped with pico de gallo, was juicy and satisfying, especially for 360 calories. But of all the agencies we visited, the USDA should know better.

-- Jane Black

South Building, 12th Street SW and C Street (Enter through Door 2 on C St.). Hours: weekdays, 6:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Open to the public.

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