Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Trouble with Local Produce

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

I wonder if anyone else attending the "food services roundtable" this week at D.C. Public Schools headquarters was struck by food services director Jeffrey Mills' comment that he and his crew have recently taste-tested some 300 different "food products" for the upcoming school year.

Mills said he personally had tasted "30 different chicken products," in the effort to improve school meals.

"Food products"? "Chicken products"?

The emphasis seems to be on "products" rather than fresh food. And that's one of the problems schools face when their idea of serving children revolves around hiring a giant food services contractor--in this case Chartwells--whose method of producing meals involves reheating industrially processed convenience foods. Or should we say "products"?

D.C. schools under Chancellor Michelle Rhee have determined that cooking is not a "core competency" of schools and so have farmed out the job to Chartwells. This year they are introducing two pilot programs--14 schools to be served meals either from Revolution Foods or D.C. Central Kitchen--to create a little competition and light a fire under Chartwells.

Still, the problem remains: how do you get fresh produce into the meals if no one in the kitchen is trained to handle it, or doesn't have the equipment?

As well as being pressed by healthy food and farm to school advocates, Mills has a financial incentive to put some sort of locally grown food on every cafeteria tray. The "Healthy Schools Act"passed earlier this year by the D.C. Council offers a five-cent bonus for each school meal that contains a locally grown component.

That wouldn't be hard at all if D.C. schools had salad bars. But D.C. schools don't have salad bars. They could put it in the soup. But D.C. schools don't make or serve soup. They could put local vegetables in the the pasta sauce. But D.C. schools don't make their own pasta sauce. It comes out of a can. Does that mean replacing cooked-to-death broccoli from Mexico or California with local cooked-to-death broccoli?

Mills remarked that "there's a ton of local produce around us" here in the District of Columbia. He said one local distributor, Keany Produce, has assured him it can deliver all the local produce D.C. schools might require. But as far as actually using that produce in school kitchens: "Hopefully as years go on, we can improve the skills of our kitchen workers and upgrade our kitchens."

Years? Is there a plan we don't know about?

Anthony Tata, chief operating officer for the schools, seems perfectly content to rely on vendors. When asked whether D.C. schools might ever emulate other schools districts who "self operate" their food service and cook with raw products, he said it's all about "good contract management." "I can't predict the future," Tata said, "but we will make decisions to bring the most nutritious food to our kids. We think we've found the sweet spot of what we're driving toward. We'll be ruthless in holding [vendors] accountable."

Meanwhile, other school districts around the country are doing everything they can to train their own cooks and upgrade their kitchens in order to prepare meals more economically from scratch using fresh produce and other raw ingredients. Here's a report that aired last night on PBS Newshour, describing how schools in Colorado are using federal stimulus funds to conduct "culinary boot camps" to train their own cooks.

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