The position at the very top of D.C. Public Schools--interim Chancellor Kaya Henderson--continues to be that schools are incapable of running their own food service program. Henderson says she is glad to have a hired third party--Chartwells--handle it so she can focus on reading and math.
Henderson made her views on school food known in a meeting with a small group of activists--including myself--along with the director of food services, Jeffrey Mills, and Peggy O'Brien, head of "community engagement."
Henderson embraces the status quo as introduced three years ago by her predecessor, Michelle Rhee, who hired Chartwells in an attempt to stop the hemorrhaging of dollars from the food services operation, which was losing between $11 million and $14 million each year, according to school officials.
By comparison, the entire food delivery contract with Chartwells amounts to around $28 million annually. It includes $7 million worth of deficit spending.
But as school officials are learning, the "cost reimbursable" arrangement with Chartwells, in which D.C. Public Schools pays all of the expenses Chartwells incurs, is far more expensive than simply paying a contractor such as D.C. Central Kitchen or Revolution Foods to provide meals a flat rate, which they are doing in 14 schools as part of two pilot projects.
Think what D.C. schools might save if they learned to make the food themselves, as other successful school districts do. In fact, most of the nation's school districts--including the largest, New York City, and surrounding suburban jurisdictions here, such as Montgomery and Fairfax County--manage their own, in-house food service operations.
At the moment, Mills and others are locked in closed-door discussions about how DCPS will feed its 45,000 students next year. Unfortunately, they are doing so without any input from the community, an attitude that activists such as myself, along with Andrea Northup of the D.C. Farm to School Network, and Tara Flakker of Parents for Better D.C. School Food, would like to see changed.
In school districts where creating a successful food program is a priority, community involved has been key to success. That was certainly the case in Berkeley, Calif., and in Boulder, Co., two districts where I have spent considerable time in the kitchens and the cafeterias, and where parents rallied around the idea that children deserve better than processed convenience foods and tons of sugar for breakfast and lunch.
Here in D.C., many positive changes have been made to the menu in the last year, but precious little has been done in the way of involving parents or the community in those changes, or in educating children about why they should be eating something other than their beloved chicken nuggets and tater tots.
The education element will only become more critical as the USDA implements meal guidelines that restrict foods kids like most--such as potatoes--and require lots more "healthy" foods kids typically trash: green, orange and red vegetables, and whole grains. School kitchens will be further challenged by a requirement to reduce the salt in food by at least half. Kids already complain their food doesn't have enough flavor. The USDA anticipates that removing salt will mean schools ditching processed foods such as nuggets and cooking lots more from scratch.
Henderson and too many of her underlings seem to have not yet grasped this reality and the importance of involving parents and community leaders in each step of the process. In our meeting, the interim chancellor seemed astonished to learn, for instance, that a parent--me--was visiting his daughter's cafeteria every day, photographing the food and talking to children about it.
"Wouldn't that be like having a parent sitting in the classroom?" Henderson asked. In other words, how can children possibly focus on eating if there is a parent present?
But if only cafeterias were treated like classrooms, where the food they were eating were part of an important lesson, rather than a chaotic rush to find something appealing among all the USDA-required items on their trays, gobble it up in the 15 minutes they have remaining after they've stood in the meal line--only to toss the rest in the trash.
In some districts, such as Boulder, parents are actually encouraged to visit the cafeteria and help introduce new foods and coach kids in healthier eating. They know that leaving kids to their own devices is not a formula for success. Healthy eating habits need to be taught, just like reading and math. Parents, who are responsible for feeding their children from birth, after all, are very much part of that equation.
Solving this riddle--or at least shedding some light on it--is the purpose of the Better D.C. School Food blog. But the fact that the schools chancellor isn't even aware that this ongoing project exists--one year later--speaks volumes about the miles we have to go to turn things around here in the nation's captiol, right outside Michelle Obama's door.
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