Thursday, August 19, 2010

Menu Advisory Committee?

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Did you know that under the U.S. Department of Agriculture rules that govern school meal programs any school district that uses a contracted food services management company such as Chartwells, Sodexo, Aramark must "establish an advisory board of parents, teachers and students to assist in menu planning"?

I ask because after I discovered this provision in the federal rule book yesterday I took a quick poll of the people who have been most involved in school food issues lately in the District of Columbia and none of them had heard of any such a committee existing here. (Being the one journalist in town covering school food in any great depth on a regular basis, I would have expected myself to have heard of a menu advisory committee if one existed, but this is news to me. Except a dim recollection draws me back to the school district's original contract with Chartwells where, on page 22, there's a provision stating: "The contractor shall participate in the formation and establishment and periodic meetings of DCPS advisory board, comprised of students, teachers, and parents, to assist in menu planning.")

With classes scheduled to begin on Monday, the D.C. Public Schools sent out a newsletter that arrived in the mail yesterday, including an item entitled, "New school year, new menu, more choices, better food." Here's the text:

"What's new? Take a look at our menu. It features more whole-grained foods and meals lower in fat and sugar. And all menus will feature fruit and veggies from farms in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and North Carolina."

Food Services Director Jeffrey Mills has also said recently that he and his staff have been busy tasting new "products" and trying to make D.C. school menus better. Was a committee of parents, teachers and students involved in this effort? Certainly, neither Mills nor his staff reached out to us or advertised a menu planning committee that I know of.

But for all you other parents out there whose school districts employ a food service management company to provide meals, this is one way you can make a difference. Has your school district established a menu advisory committee as required by federal law? If not, insist that they do so. If they are just keeping it secret, shine a light on it and sign up.


  1. Ed - Holy moly! NOW I know why Aramark formed the Parent Advisory Committee here in Houston. Gee, I thought it was out of the goodness of their hearts. Thanks for clearing that up! :-)

  2. The Child Nutrition Act reauthorization of 2004 required every school district which participates in the National School Lunch Program or School Breakfast Program to develop their own local Wellness Policy by the start of the 2006-07 school year. The policy is to be developed by a broad coalition of stakeholders including district staff, parents, students, and members of the public. The policy is supposed to set goals for nutrition, nutrition education, physical activity and other school based activities to promote student health.

    The Washington DC based Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) has a great guide to how to get this Wellness Policy done, with a section on getting the committee started. Ongoing monitoring and assessment of the policy is essential to its success. If your community doesn't already have such a policy in place, and a standing committee including parents to assess its effectiveness, then your school district needs to get one started.

    Here's a link to the FRAC guide in case it is helpful for anyone:

  3. Thanks, Dana. This committee is separate and apart from the wellness committee you are describing. And, yes, D.C. does have a wellness committee. How effective it is seems to be a matter of some conjecture.

  4. Having a clear and comprehensive Wellness Policy in place, one which has been approved by the local board of education, is really key to getting improvements in school food, especially when the school district uses an outside company to provide their meals. Say, for example, that your Wellness Policy prohibits artificial colors in the food served to students; this means that in the contract that your district signs with the outside company, it must be specified that there will be no artifical colors in the food they provide. This alone would keep Froot Loops and the other cereals designed to not only taste but also look like candy out of your school breakfasts (I realize that DC schools will no longer be serving those highly sugared cereals, but they could have been forced out a long time ago by this kind of prohibition in your Wellness Policy.)

    The USDA requires that school districts not only have a Wellness Policy, but also that districts abide by it. The USDA reviews every district which participates in the National School Lunch Program about every 4 years; my district was reviewed last year. One of the things they check for is compliance with the local Wellness Policy. So if your meal provider were, for example, continuing to serve Froot Loops in defiance of the local Wellness Policy prohibiting artificial colors, this is something that would be noted in the USDA report and the district would be required to take corrective action. the USDA follows up to make sure the corrective action has been taken, too.

    I realize you may know all of this already but perhaps there are some among your readers who don't, so I hope this is helpful for them.