D.C. schools names two vendors to provide healthful meals in pilot program

By Jane Black
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 3, 2010

With one-third of the nation's children overweight or obese, improving the quality of school meals has become a fashionable cause. Michelle Obama has made it a pillar of her national "Let's Move" campaign. In May, the D.C. Council passed the Healthy Schools Act, which mandates strict nutrition standards for school meals and provides schools with an extra 15 cents per meal to increase the amount of fruits and vegetables and local ingredients.

On Monday, D.C. Public Schools took its own step in improving school food when it announced the new vendors it has selected to provide more healthful meals for two pilot programs scheduled to begin this fall at 14 D.C. elementary schools. Revolution Foods, a California-based company that serves 25 D.C. schools from a kitchen in Glen Burnie, will provide prepackaged meals at seven schools that are undergoing renovations and have no student lunchroom. DC Central Kitchen will provide made-from-scratch meals such as vegetable stir fries and homemade quiches at seven schools in Northeast Washington.

The pilot programs require both vendors to meet the strict nutrition standards for foods in schools recommended by the Institute of Medicine -- the gold standard for healthful school lunches. In addition, it requires that each meal contain fruit, vegetables and hormone-free milk; 75 percent of the edible products must be 75 percent or more whole-grain; and grass-fed, local, antibiotic-free meats must be served whenever possible. The portable-meal proposal also calls for biodegradable packaging.

"The pilots are designed to create a more competitive environment for school food and to help us to assess what works best in terms of food quality and different methods of cooking," said Jeff Mills, director of food service for D.C. schools. "We will then take the best practices of all our programs and apply them the following year."

The school system is under intense pressure to reform its food service. D.C. has the ninth-highest rate of childhood obesity in the country, according to a June report by the Trust for America's Health. And like many urban school districts, it has come under fire for serving a steady diet of ultra-processed and sugary foods. An expose on a local blog, The Slow Cook, revealed that Chartwells, the current school food service provider, advertised a "fresh-cooked" meal program but served processed scrambled eggs with 13 ingredients including soybean oil, modified corn starch, xanthan gum and lipolized butter oil.

The District's first move was to hire Mills as its new food service director in January. Since taking over, Mills has toured national models of school-food reform: Great Kids Farms, an educational center run by the Baltimore City Public Schools; the Washington Jesuit Academy, where DC Central Kitchen cooks locally sourced meals from scratch; and the Edible Schoolyard, an organic teaching garden and kitchen pioneered by chef-restaurateur Alice Waters in Berkeley, Calif.

Six vendors, including Chartwells, expressed interest in the pilot programs, which together are worth about $2 million annually. Anthony Tata, chief operating officer for D.C. schools, said that smaller vendors had prevailed because they had more extensive relationships with local farmers than national corporations, for which it is often more cost-effective to buy produce from production farms in California.

"When we started this process about 10 months ago, we realized that we could have fresher products served in our cafeterias," Tata said. "And the best way to do it was to change where they're getting it from."

The pilot programs begin Aug. 23, the first day of the new school year. They will be evaluated throughout the school year based on cost, student participation and nutrition. If the programs are successful, Tata said, the District has the option to extend or expand them to more schools.

The school system is holding a roundtable Tuesday for parents and teachers to discuss changes in the food service. The meeting is at 7 p.m. on the 10th floor of D.C. schools headquarters, 1200 First St. NE.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company