Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Chef's Perspective on D.C.'s Pilot Food Programs

I crossed paths with Lisa Suriano at the Fed Up with Lunch blog, where readers voted her a "Titanium Spork" award for her crusading efforts on behalf of school food. Because her family provides school meals through their catering company in New Jersey, I asked Lisa if she would give us her view of the two pilot programs D.C. school officials have announced to serve upgraded menus in the coming year. Each will use private contractors to provide food for seven schools, one with "portable" meals delivered to the cafeteria, the other meals cooked from scratch on site. Lisa, recently returned from a trip to Italy to witness the progress school meal program in Rome, sent this guest post---Ed Bruske

Guest Post
By Lisa R. Suriano

When Mr. Bruske asked me to guest blog, he sent me the RFPs (request for proposals) that the D.C. schools submitted for their new, healthier pilot lunch programs. He was curious to find out my thoughts on the documents. Before I get into my response, perhaps I ought to briefly explain my background.

My name is Lisa Suriano. I have grown up with the school food industry as a figurative member of my family. My father, an exquisite culinarian, has owned a food service management and consulting company for my entire life and I now assist him in operating that business. This past May I completed a Masters of Science in Nutrition and Food Science. I also hold a deep passion for nutrition education. I have developed an efficient education program--Veggiecation--that enables schools and food service programs to collaborate in making positive change. Most recently, my fascination and devotion to school food led me to seek out an interview with Paolo Agostini, the official nutritionist of the Municipality of Rome, Italy. Rome prides itself on having one of the most progressive, nutritious and locally procured public school lunch programs in the world. (Stay tuned for a complete report on my visit.)

I perused the very thorough RFP from D.C. schools. It is a far-reaching and rather complex document. It should be applauded for addressing so many elements of the school food issue. (For instance, competitive foods, increased participation, a greater variety of nutrients). There is so much I would like to comment on, but I feel it's best to address the final products: the menu, the ingredients and the students' response and acceptance of it.

The sample menu and the guidelines are alright. They are balanced and varied for the most part. It would be nice to see an emphasis on other grains besides processed wheat and corn products. (Almost every meal contains one or the other.) I recognize that cooking grains requires more equipment and labor investment than serving a slice of bread. However, a grain such as whole-wheat couscous made into a salad or a side dish is incredibly quick cooking and very kid-friendly.

The guideline to feature green and orange vegetables was definitely positive. Yet, carrots and oranges were the only orange foods on the sample menus. Kids will eat pumpkin and butternut squash when it is properly presented (such as pumpkin chili or cinnamon-roasted butternut squash). I was hoping to see other orange vegetables suggested on the menus. Also, I found it interesting that there were no specific stipulations for the meat/protein component of the meal. I suppose this is perhaps too large a political issue to combat at this point. Still, I want to note that Rome's broad-minded approach to affording a higher-quality "center of the plate" component is to require that meat be served only two times, while pasta, fish, eggs and legumes round out the rest of the week.

On the surface, a menu can sound just fine. It is more important that whole foods are being used to create these menu items. From my experience, I know that quality food products are available on the market for schools to purchase in bulk. I also know that pricing for these products is determined heavily by commitment and usage. Therefore, I think a major key to producing these "from scratch meals" with high quality ingredients is to incentivize manufacturers with contracts for large purchases of healthy, whole food products.

For example, if pricing for an organic yogurt or locally produced yogurt can be negotiated down through bulk purchasing agreements, the success of this pilot program is more feasible. (I know that the New York City Department of Education has had success doing this with the local dairy company, Upstate Farms Yogurt.) I believe this could be accomplished with a greater number of other ingredients. Perhaps local producers could be favored for statewide supply contracts. Rome did this by giving preference and higher points to contractors that could guarantee the shortest amount of travel time "between harvest and intake." I am not sure that food service companies here could accomplish this independently, without the government's assistance and regional availabilities taken into account. I believe the District of Columbia Public Schools Office of Food Services would need to be involved, as well as other regional districts.

Finally, in order for this to be a sustainable program, the kids have to want and eat the food. I feel that no one, children in particular, will make healthy lifestyle choices without being educated and excited about their value and taste. Without fostering understanding first, efforts to improve nutrition will be futile. Nutrition education and connecting children personally to their food is a vital component of the success of any program.

If an environment that teaches about and values healthy food choices is created, the program will receive the support it needs internally (meaning, higher participation rates). But this requires the belief and encouragement of parents, teachers and administrators. Neither food service companies nor government initiatives can effect change on their own.


  1. Too true. In response to the mention of nutrition education, that seems to be the central lacking component in school food programs. Maybe that's because the school lunch program is managed by the USDA and not the Dept of Ed.

  2. Jill (Early Childhood Educator)July 20, 2010 at 10:36 AM

    So many great points were brought up in your post Lisa! If the right people get behind this movement for change I truly believe all of our children can be eating fresher, healthier, and better tasting foods in school which will hopefully lead to better food choices at home as well. I am very interested to hear about your meeting in Rome and what our role models for school food have been doing. Please keep up the good work...our children need someone like you at the forefront of this movement!

  3. I like Lisa Suriano's approach to kids & food! She realizes that if children read about & shop for, then prepare whole foods, they will be much more likely to be excited about eating them.
    All too often, we take the easy way out & give our kids the high fat, high sugar foods. They get hooked on them & we wonder why they won't eat their veggies!!
    Great job, Lisa, I look forward to hearing more from you!!