Friday, August 20, 2010

D.C. Schools Attempt to Manage Food News

Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

School resumes here in the District of Columbia on Monday, Aug. 23, and I was hoping to give readers a first-hand glimpse of how D.C. Central Kitchen was cooking food from scratch for seven of the District's schools as part of a new pilot program. The world wants to know how the Central Kitchen, a non-profit agency that makes food for 4,500 of the city's homeless, manages to work fresh, local produce into kids' meals, and whether the kids actually eat it.

I had already talked to the Central Kitchen about it and gotten a green light. But after waiting nearly a week for clearance from the D.C. Public Schools' general counsel's office, the clock ran out on my proposal to be embedded in the kitchen at Kelly Miller Middle School, where the Central Kitchen staff will be preparing those meals. After many urgent messages to the schools' press secretary, Jennifer Calloway, I received an e-mail last night from someone named Katie Test, the communications coordinator for the Office of Family and Public Engagement.

Here's the text of Test's e-mail:

"I’ll be handling some of our media requests, and have been working on your proposal. We love the idea of you observing the DC Central Kitchen from-scratch lunch programs, and are pulling together a waiver for you to sign. We’d like to invite you and other interested reporters to observe the lunch period at one of our schools, and will also be able to set you up with interviews with key DCPS and DCCK personnel."

She continued:

"I’m sure you understand that back-to-school time, especially in the middle of an exciting new pilot program like this one, is extremely busy. We want to grant your request for access while being respectful of the work that needs to be done in the kitchen and the people who need to do it.

So stay tuned! We’re getting the paperwork set up and I’ll be back in touch with a few potential dates that fit everyone’s schedules."

Of course I wasn't looking for dates that fit everyone's schedules. I just wanted to get into the Kelly Miller kitchen with my camera and notepad. Test seemed to have skated completely around my original request. So I asked her why I couldn't just play fly on the wall at Kelly Miller, the same way I have done at the central kitchen in Berkeley, Calif., in the "culinary boot camps" in Denver, in the kitchen at Washington Jesuit Academy.

This is how Test responded:

"Given your extensive background in the subject, I’m sure you completely understand the hectic nature of our kitchens during the start of school, especially while we’re piloting a brand new program. While we’re happy to revisit your request to embed for a longer period of time later in the year, we’d still like to have you come in to see how the meals are assembled and served during a lunch period in the next few weeks. I know from your conversations with Jennifer that you’re eager to get a peek, so this is the best solution to balance everyone’s needs."

She concluded:

"We’ll continue to get the paperwork in line, and if you are interested in lunch period access, I’ll identify some potential dates for access for a lunch period."

I translate all of this as meaning that the D.C. Public Schools, after getting so much bad press over the food Chartwells has been serving, is incredibly nervous about the launch of new pilot programs and feels they have to manage every little step the media take around it. But maybe after the dust settles they'll realize that what this is about, after all, is simply people cooking food and trying to make meals from the measly $1 worth of ingredients the federal meals program provides.

We get that. The next step is simply letting the tax-paying public know exactly how it's done. As far as good news for the schools goes, it's an almost guaranteed home run.

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