By Jody Tick
There has been a lot of buzz and excitement about the new leadership and direction of the DCPS food services. The conversation continued yesterday at a DCPS Community Forum, where about 60 parents, teachers, food service professionals, and community organizations gathered to ask questions of DCPS Food Services Director Jeff Mills, Chief Operations Officer Tony Tata, and Director of Health & Wellness Diana Bruce.
As an active DCPS parent, and a program director at the Capital Area Food Bank, I recognized almost every face in the room - fellow parent activist Constance Newman, garden educator Kacie Warner, and anti-hunger advocate Kristin Roberts, to name a few. Each of those wonderful stakeholders could be so much more than just a face in the crowd. We could be valuable assets to the DCPS school meal system, and advocates in support of the changes you plan to make.
Since coming in to town a few months ago, the DCPS food services team has undertaken incredible efforts to transform D.C. school meals. This has been a challenge, given that D.C. school meals have a rocky history plagued by contract mismanagement, financial accountability issues, food safety concerns, and inconsistent leadership. Jeff Mills and his team have inherited a 60,000 meal-a-day beast of a system, and have been quick to make big promises about how they’re going to turn it around on a dime. To their credit, they’ve made huge expansions to breakfast in the classroom, piloting supper programs at after-school programs, taking on two new vendors as pilot projects, and hiring new staff. And there are big promises of things to come, such as a garden-kitchen educational program, special celebratory events, a totally new menu based on unprocessed, fresh foods, 20% local produce, and compliance with Institute of Medicine standards. The list goes on.
But who’s calling the shots? What is the end goal? Where are we headed?
All the people in that room last night are on the same side as Jeff and his team. We want the great things for our kids and our community that they rattled off - more fresh, unprocessed foods, more local produce, better access to school meals. But we understand that it won’t be easy to get those foods on D.C. cafeteria trays, and then get kids to eat them. You’ll need the community to be your allies in this. But a few things need to change.
First, you must engage us. We need a formal system for providing input and giving feedback. It is not enough for you to stand in front of us and tell us what’s happening. We need to have a formal “Advisory Committee” comprised of a wide swath of community members and national experts to be a part of the planning and execution of the new DCPS school meal operation. We need this NOW, as plans for the future are being shaped and defined, not after they have already been developed.
Second, slow down. Nobody is expecting a barrage of reforms that will solve every aspect of the DCPS school meals all at once. The issues plaguing the DCPS school food system run deep, and have been decades in the making (as you probably know better than we do). We would rather see a few simple, measurable goals achieved than dozens of efforts pulled together quickly.
Third, show us a strategic plan. This city has seen too many well-intentioned but piecemeal efforts to improve the health and well-being of our youth. We need to be thinking not months, but years into the future at what DCPS food services will look like. Tony Tata himself said that DCPS has no idea what this operation will look like after this year, and that’s unacceptable. Other large, urban school districts have overcome the same issues we are facing and are serving the types of meals we strive to serve. Let us learn from their successes and failures, and develop a strategic plan to get where we all want to go, with attention to the unique strengths and weaknesses we have here in the nation’s capital.
Fourth, be transparent. Keep us in the loop with your plans, the criteria you use to evaluate foods, how you spend our taxpayer dollars, where your food is coming from and what’s down the pipeline. It’s not enough for you to give us vague responses to our questions from time to time - stay ahead of the curve and provide us with concrete information.
You can have our 100% support in these efforts if you engage us, and make calculated, strategic change towards our common goals, and are transparent with the community you’re serving. And believe me, it is going to take our support and buy-in on a much deeper level to realize the ambitious goals that we all have for D.C. school food. We owe it to the thousands of children who depend on these meals each day to work together on this while we have the chance. Let’s get it right.
Jody Tick is a member of Parents for Better D.C. School Food.