By Constance Newman
I’m not too concerned about the lack of a clear vision for the future for DC school food. I thought the Tuesday night meeting was energizing in that there was a large attendance of concerned parents and other community members. It’s only been a year since Rhee’s team has tried to make change, and the hiring of Jeff Mills seems like a very good first step.
From the little he said, Mills seems to “get it” in terms of our interests in reducing processed food, increasing local produce, etc. I trust them when they say it’s hard to make big changes right away. The fact that they are removing flavored milk is huge (way beyond the vaunted Institute of Medicine standards), and now they have awarded contracts for pilot programs to two firms that are very committed to local, farm-fresh produce.
DCPS has been pushed by The Healthy Meals Act to make changes, so maybe they’re learning as they go. That’s okay with me. I’m thankful they are making Chartwells compete and that they’re open to new ideas. In fact, if they were forced to write a strategic plan right now, I’m afraid we wouldn’t like it.
Maybe they’ll figure out that it would be more cost-effective to hire a non-profit entity headed by a local chef. Jamie Oliver, DC style! They didn’t talk about it, but Cathal Armstrong and other chefs are supposedly going to take over food services at Tyler Elementary. That’s the model that many of us are more excited about. Not because they’re chefs, per se, though that is important, but because it’s a non-profit venture. I agree with Ed that the idea that there’s money to be made in school food service is highly suspect. Schools are prohibited by law from making a profit when running school lunch programs, but somehow private companies are allowed to?
I’d like to see a rigorous evaluation of the pilots and Chartwells. The fact that they are private probably complicates the ability of D.C. to publish information about food quality and cost structure (and that’s another problem with outsourcing to for-profit firms—lack of transparency). What is D.C. Public Schools going to use as their criteria? Tony Tata mentioned the need to serve healthy meals while keeping costs down and participation up. With more people watching, how is DCPS going to measure and demonstrate the successes and failures of the different models? What are the criteria that we’d like them to use?
And what was the ever-so-brief mention of a school garden program (“pilot”) that Jeff Mills said we’ll be hearing about in the future? It did seem like we weren’t getting a full picture of all of the models being discussed and/or planned, especially when this was mentioned rather surreptitiously. Hopefully there will be more good news in our future.
As Jody Tick said in her post yesterday, DCPS needs to involve the community directly at this experimental stage. We can help set the criteria they will use to measure whether the new and old models are really delivering. We can help engage parents to support school food reforms. An advisory committee sounds perfect.
Here’s to seeing the glass half full.
Constance Newman is a member of Parents for Better D.C. School Food