Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Time to Take a Stand for Better D.C. School Food

What's for lunch these days? Tilapia

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

Here's one thing for sure: Lining the pockets of big corporate vendors is not a path to a sustainable school food system. D.C. officials made that mistake four years ago when they opted to hire Chartwells to run the city's cafeterias. Now D.C. Public Schools are staring at a $14 million hole in their budget. The problem Chartwells was supposed to solve has only gotten worse.

But schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson would continue down that path. She refuses to listen to a plan to bring school meal production back in-house where it belongs. Instead, she's ordered her staff to put meal service out for bid again. That may work temporarily, but concerned parents and food activists across the city are asking Henderson to think again and start the process of building a self-operating meals program.

D.C. is one of only a few large school districts nationwide that outsource their food service to companies like Chartwells, Sodexo and Aramark. Most districts know that the only way to feed kids well economically is by running their own kitchens. But making the switch takes lots of planning. It takes an entire community rallying around the important business of how we feed out kids.

That's where you come in. Add your voice to those demanding that we keep the momentum going behind the recent improvements we've seen in D.C. school meals. Sign this petition and send Chancellor Henderson a message: We want our dollars used to put better food on kids' plates, not for shareholder profits.

You can read more about this issue here and here. Details about the new DCPS school meals "mega contract" is contained in the recently published "request for proposal."

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Kids Go Wild for Cinnamon Buns

Cinnamon buns don't get much better than this

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

We had a near-riot on our hands this week when we made cinnamon buns in our food appreciation classes. Apparently word traveled fast around the campus how good they were. Kids crowded into our kitchen area. I had to send some of them back onto the playground so that we could actually conduct classes.

Even I was a bit surprised that a simple biscuit dough wrapped around some sugary cinnamon could taste so good. These buns were light and tender--but with a hint of cloves in the filling, they packed a powerful flavor punch.

The one tool you will find essential for this is a pastry scraper. That's to get under the dough and roll it into a log. Pry, lift, roll: that's the motion you want, all along the edge of a rather long rectangle, creating a pinwheel log, after you've pressed the filling onto the sheet of dough. If you don't have a traditional pastry scraper, you could substitute an extra-wide paint scraper or a drywall finishing tool. Just make sure it's very clean. You don't need any paint or drywall in your cinnamon buns.

Start by melting 11 tablespoons of butter (1 stick plus 3 tablespoons). The original recipe called for melting various quantities of butter at different stages of the production. But I think it's much easier just to melt all of the butter at once in a small sauce pan. Set it aside to cool.

Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, mix the filling by whisking together 3/4 packed dark brown sugar (we used light brown sugar), 1/4 cup granulated sugar, 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon, 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves and 1/8 teaspoon salt. Stir in 1 tablespoon melted butter, using your fingers to break up any clumps, until the mix looks like wet sand. Set aside.

In a separate, large mixing bowl, whisk together 2 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, 1 1/4 teaspoons baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon baking soda and 1/2 teaspoon salt.

In a liquid measuring cup, stir together 1 1/4 cups buttermilk and 6 tablespoons melted butter.

Pour the buttermilk mix into the flour mix and stir with a rubber spatula, scraping the bottom and sides of the bowl and pressing the liquid and dry ingredients together until a shaggy dough forms. Pour the dough onto a floured work surface and press it together as you would for biscuits, kneading it a few times. Press the dough into a rectangle with your hands, making sure both sides are dusted with flour. Then use a floured rolling pin to roll the dough into a larger rectangle--about 15 inches long by 12 inches wide. The dough should be about 1/4-inch thick or a bit more.

Rub about 1 tablespoon melted butter over the dough, then pour on the cinnamon mix, spreading it all over the surface of the dough and patting it lightly with your hands. Then at the near edge of the dough use your pastry scraper to lift the dough and roll it over onto itself to form a log. When you are finished rolling, you can squeeze and pat the log along its length to make it a bit more uniform.

Grease a 9-inch metal cake pan with 1 tablespoon melted butter. Use a serrated knife to cut the log into 1 1/2-inch rounds, patting each piece lightly to flatten it a bit, then transferring into the cake pan, packing them as tightly as necessary. Don't worry, they will separate easily after they've been baked.

Pour the remaining melted butter over the top of the buns, then place the cake pan on the middle rack of a pre-heated 425-degree oven for 25 minutes.

While the buns are in the oven, you can make an icing if you like. Stir together until very smooth 1 tablespoon soften cream cheese, 1 tablespoon buttermilk and 1/2 cup sifted confectioner's sugar.

When the buns have finished baking, set the cake pan on a wire rack to cool. When the buns are cool enough to handle, use a pointed knife to gently cut around the edges of each bun and remove them to the wire rack or a sheet pan to cool further. Before serving, drizzle some icing over each bun and watch them disappear.

Friday, February 24, 2012

It's Time for the Inspector General to Investigate D.C. School Food

Why do D.C. cafeterias consistently lose money?

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Was former D.C. schools Chief Operating Officer Anthony Tata pulling our leg when he told a room packed with parents and other concerned citizens in August 2010 that school cafeterias had been losing $11 million to $14 million every year on food service?

I was there, and I distinctly remember Tata saying school officials had "found a sweet spot" by hiring Chartwells, a giant food service company, to manage the cafeterias. Sitting next to him was the newly hired DCPS food services manager, Jeffrey Mills, who had spent his first months forcing Chartwells to radically overhaul its menus, ditching Pop-Tarts, chicken nuggets and strawberry milk in favor of chicken on the bone, homemade lasagna and locally-sourced broccoli.

Now comes Mills saying deficits have only gotten worse under Chartwells--a whopping $14.35 million in the current school year. But wait: According to figures Mills recently supplied to D.C. Council Member Mary Cheh, budget overruns in food service have ranged widely. In school year 2006-2007, when DCPS was running its own food service--meaning purchasing ready-made meals packed in a suburban factory--the deficit was $10.8 million. The following year, when food service was still self-operated, the flow of red ink increased to $11.6 million. In 2008-2009, after Chartwells took over, the deficit swelled to $14.4 million. But the following year it shrank to $13, million and fell a whopping 30 percent in 2010-2011--the year D.C. hired D.C. Central and Revolution Foods to serve the food in 14 schools as part of a pilot program.

So why is the budget shortfall back with a vegeance this year--40 percent larger, in fact, at $14.35 million?

Out of control deficits have prompted schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson to demand that her food service team immediately advertise a new "mega-contract" for outsourced cafeteria operations. A request for proposal is scheduled to be published in this Sunday's Washington Post. The last such RFP was published four years ago and led to the hiring of Chartwells. The only other company to bid was Sodexo, one of Chartwells main competitors.

Both companies are part of huge, foreign-based conglomerates. Sodexo is French, Chartwells, which manages food service in more than 500 U.S. school districts, is just a small part of the $14 billion Compass Group, based in Great Britain.

There's no reason to suspect that Chartwells won't bid on the new contract. Or that it might not just win the bidding again and continue under some new terms. That's the last thing Mills would want to see. He wants Chartwells out now so that he can run his own system in-house. But that has put him at odds with Chancellor Henderson, who won't even listen to Mills' proposal and prefers to rule over DCPS cafeterias in typical D.C. fashion--with an iron fist.

Apparently, one thing Mills hasn't learned in his two years on the job is how to navigate the schools bureaucracy. It will be a miracle if he keeps his job. And that would be a shame, since he really has presided over some dramatic improvements. The vastly more appetizing menu-- minus the flavored milk and other processed junk foods--was a great starter. But he also has incorporated lots of locally-sourced produce, taking advantage of extra funding made available in the Healthy Schools Act approved by the D.C. Council two years ago. He started a school breakfast program that has been named the best in the country, along with a new "supper" program that ensures kids don't go home in the evening with empty stomachs. And he's installed salad bars in a number of schools, which has been credited with increasing student participation in the meals program across the board.

That's why it's so important now to ask the city's inspector general to finally untangle the messy finances in DCPS food services. Please tell us why the schools consistently lose so much money every year feeding our kids. We need this kind of baseline information--some real straight talk--so that we can make important decisions in the future about how school cafeterias should be run.

In my reporting on school food, I've chosen to look on these deficits in D.C. as a subsidy for the meals program. For sure, all that red ink helps pay for some of the best school food in the country. But is it also subsidizing too much waste and inefficiency? Do we just pay a lot more for cafeteria worker salaries? Or is too much money simply lining the pockets of Chartwells and its Compass Group shareholders?

If the schools were running deficits before, when they were just ordering the equivalent of factory-made airline meals, how different are the deficits now, when we have a professional food service company making the meals in school kitchens using individual components? These are the kinds of questions the inspector general could answer so that we as a community do not continue to trip over ourselves trying to decide what kind of food service the schools should have, so that we aren't trying to chose a winner between the chancellor and her food services director.

I'm told that asking the inspector general to get involved now really wouldn't help much--it takes a year or two to conduct an investigation and generate a report. But here's the kicker: building a successful food program in a district the size of D.C. is a multi-year process. In Boulder, for instance, where I spent a week observing the results of a dramatic overhaul, Ann Cooper and her team of experts spent a year just studying the local cafeteria operation and devising a plan to change a menu of processed junk to meals prepared by teams of professional chefs. In Berkeley, parents spent years organizing and agitating before they got their vaunted cafeteria overhaul.

Changing school food service in any meaningful way requires political change as well. Butting heads in the D.C. Council chamber, as May Cheh did with Kaya Henderson yesterday, may provide drama and grist for reporters, but it doesn't result in clarity or the unity of purpose we need to move the school food program together. But one thing the Council could do now that would help is ask for a formal investigation by the inspector general. That at least would explain why school food service budgets don't balance, and give us a common reference point with which to hold a civilized conversation down the road.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Is Kaya Henderson Turning Out the Lights on D.C. School Food?

Henderson:Preparing meals is not a core competency for schools

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

In a chilling rebuke, Chancellor Kaya Henderson has disavowed the ambitious plans for improved D.C. school food set forth by DCPS food services Director Jeffrey Mills and instead has ordered her staff to proceed immediately with a new contract to outsource cafeteria operations and try to stem the mounting deficits attributed to the system's current vendor, Chartwells.

In a letter to D.C. Council Member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), Henderson distanced herself from some 1,500 pages of documents Mills' staff had recently sent the Council detailing how Chartwells has contributed to some $14 million in red ink over the past year. Meanwhile, Henderson and her key management staff have refused to hear Mills' proposal to ditch Chartwells and bring much of the system's food service operations in-house.

Mills sent the proposal, in the form of a PowerPoint presentation, to Cheh. But Henderson withdrew it, saying "the views in the PowerPoint do not reflect the direction that DCPS food services is moving in...."

Henderson told Cheh that "some of my staff members may not necessarily agree with my decision" and that she was sending a revised response to questions generated by Cheh. Echoing former Chancellor Michelle Rhee's decision to hire Chartwells four years ago, Henderson wrote that "food service (like facilities maintenance and construction) is not a core competence of ours," adding that "the option of bringing food service back in house is premature at this point."

Henderson is scheduled to appear for questioning before the Council today, and Cheh, author of the city's Healthy Schools Act, plans to ask the chancellor a number of food-related questions. School officials have yet to explain whether annual deficit spending--now averaging more than $12 per year--is supporting better food, high labor costs, waste and inefficiency, corporate profits for Chartwells, or some combination of all of the above.

The emerging schism between Henderson and Mills casts a pall over a food service operation that otherwise was thought to be showing great progress since Mills was hired two years ago. Mills had forced Chartwells to completely revamp its menus, removing things like Pop-Tarts, chicken nuggets and strawberry milk in favor of low-sugar cereals, fresh vegetables and more lunch items prepared from scratch by school kitchen staff. But while Chartwells ostensibly was hired to gain control of budget shortfalls in school food service, the deficits according to Mills have only gotten worse.

For instance, the average loss per school in 2007-2008, the last year DCPS self-operated food service, the average loss per school totaled $80,000. That jumped to $115,447 the first year Chartwells took over, and in subsequent years has run around $90,000 per school.

The total food service deficit for the current school year is expected to reach $14.35 million, or more than double the red ink DCPS cafeterias generated in 2004, when the schools ran their own food service.

According to Mills' staff, Chartwells' average cost per meal is $4.21, compared to $3.06 for D.C. Central Kitchen, which prepares meals for seven schools under a pilot program, and $2.87 per meal for Revolution Foods, which caters to another seven schools. Officials said Chartwells runs up the cost with numerous contractor fees, and by paying inflated prices for many supplies and ingredients. Mills' plan to sever ties with Chartwells called for eliminating food service deficits by 2016.

Chartwells also collects millions of dollars in rebates from its suppliers. Under federal law, Chartwells is supposed to pass those rebates on to the schools, but officials said they still aren't sure they are receiving all of the funds to which they are entitled.

Chartwells has a "cost reimbursable" contract with the schools, meaning it is reimbursed for all of its expenses, as well as being paid an annual management fee and a small fee for each meal it services. Under its contract with the schools, Chartwells is supposed to hold deficit spending to no more than $6 million annually or forfeit its management fee. But according to one official, Chartwells has forfeited its management fee every year the contract has been in place while deficits zoomed out of control.

Mills, whose background was in developing restaurant concepts in New York prior to being hired as food services director for the schools here, has chafed under the Chartwells contract, hoping eventually to build a system in which the schools produced their own meals from whole ingredients. In anticipation of such a system, the Healthy School Act called on the city to provide a central kitchen and food processing facility that has yet to materialize.

According to Mills, only 8 of the nation's 135 largest school districts outsource their cafeteria operations to large food service companies such as Chartwells, Sodexo and Aramark. Neighboring Fairfax County, for instance, runs its own food service without creating deficits. But the food served there also is regarded a far inferior to the meals children in D.C. receive.

But in light of the school chancellor's latest move, Mills' vision for meals cooked fresh by local chefs may be a long way off.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Kids Make Bacon Cheese Bread

Is there anything bacon can't make better?

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

One of the adults at our school asked if we were using turkey bacon to make bacon cheese bread in our food appreciation classes.

"Heck, no!" I replied. "We do not use fake bacon in our classes!"

We teach kids to make traditional foods using traditional tools and techniques. Modern "healthy" alternatives, such as substituting a processed turkey product for real pork bacon, is an entirely different lesson But you could certainly opt for the ersatz bacon when making this bread at home.

And believe me, you will want to make this bread.

We love to torture the rest of the school with our cooking aromas. The smell of bacon sizzling on the stove top--followed by sauteed onions--started mouths watering all over campus. Add to the bread heaps of Parmesan and Gruyere cheese and you practically have a stand-alone meal that any southern chef would be proud to put on the menu. In fact, this bread would be even more perfect slathered with pimento cheese, another southern specialty.

And it's not at all difficult--or time consuming--to make. This is a quick bread, after all, where baking powder is the principle rising agent.

Start by grating 3 ounces Parmesan cheese over the large holes of a box grater. Set aside. Then grate 4 ounces Gruyere cheese and reserve separately.

Next, cut five slices of thick bacon into 1/4-inch pieces. Sautee these until almost crispy in a heavy skillet over moderately high heat, then drain the bacon onto paper towels, reserving 3 tablespoons of bacon grease in the pan. Next, sautee 1/2 medium onion, chopped fine, until lightly browned. Set aside.

For the wet ingredients used in this bread beat 1 large egg in a medium mixing bowl, then whisk in 1 1/4 cups milk, 3/4 cup sour cream and 3 tablespoons melted butter.

For the dry ingredients, whisk together in a large mixing bowl 3 cups all-purpose flour, 1 tablespoon baking powder, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper and 1 pinch cayenne pepper. Using a spatula, mix in the 4 ounces grated Grueyer cheese, tossing and stirring until the cheese is completely coated with the flour mix, breaking up any clumps of cheese as you go.

Grease a 9-inch by 5-inch loaf pan with cooking spray. We had some issues with the bread sticking to our pan, especially on the bottom. You might want to line the bottom of the pan with a piece of parchment paper and spray it well. Dust the bottom of the pan with 1/2 the reserved grated Parmesan cheese.

Pour the wet ingredients into the flour mix and mix well with a rubber spatula, scraping the sides and bottom of the bowl until all of the ingredients are incorporated. Scrape the batter into the prepared load pan, smooth out the top and dust it with the remaining grated Parmesan cheese.

Place in a 350-degree oven for 50 minutes, or until the loaf is golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean. Allow the loaf to cool in the pan for about 15 minutes, then invert and place the loaf on a wire rack to cool further.

Make sure to get a slice for yourself. This bread does not last long!

Friday, February 10, 2012

Kids Make Cranberry Nut Bread

A quick bread loaded with fruit

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

The original recipe for this delicious quick bread originally called for fresh cranberries. But with cranberries out of season, we had a choice to make and opted to use sweetened dried cranberries instead. The result is perhaps more like a fruit cake than a bread. So much the better. The kids couldn't get enough.

The kids in my baking classes know by now what a chemical rise is, as opposed to a rise created with yeast. Baking soda and baking powder react with acidic liquids to make dough expand, giving us a tender bread or biscuit instead of a cracker. In this case, we use both baking powder--which contains both alkaline and acidic ingredients--and baking soda to create the rise when combined with orange juice and buttermilk, both of which bring an acid to the equation.

Lots of orange zest, in addition to the juice, also lends a ton of fruit flavor to the bread, complementing the cranberries nicely. Heck, you could serve this bread as a replacement for your traditional cranberry mold. It would be delicious toasted and slathered with cream cheese.

Start with your dry ingredients, whisking together in a large mixing bowl 2 cups all-purpose flour, 1 cup granulated sugar, 1 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon baking powder and 1/4 teaspoon baking soda. To this add 1/2 cup coarsely chopped and toasted pecans (we skipped the toasting part) and 1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped cranberries, or dried cranberries.

Meanwhile, in a separate bowl, beat one egg, then the grated zest and the juice of 1 large orange, plus 2/3 cup buttermilk and 6 tablespoons melted butter.

Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and mix well with a rubber spatula, scraping the sides and bottom of the bowl. When all of the ingredients are incorporated, scrape the batter into a 9-inch by 5-inch loaf pan greased and dusted with flour (we sprayed with Baker's Joy).

Pay careful attention to the baking instructions. Place the loaf in a pre-heated 375-degree oven for 20 minutes, then lower the temperature to 350 degrees and bake an additional 45 minutes, or until the top of the loaf is mahogany brown and a tooth pick inserted into the middle comes out clean.

Allow the bread to cool in the pan 10 minutes, then invert onto a wire rack.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Kids Make "Healthy" Blueberry Muffins

No processed sugar in these muffins

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

If you're trying to reduce the saturated fat and processed sugar in your diet, these muffins definitely fall into the category of "healthy." Orange juice, apple sauce and the blueberries lend a bit of sweetness. And for fat, we have canola oil, which contains even more mono-unsaturated fatty acids than olive oil.

But we can't advertise muffins as "healthy" to the kids in our food appreciation classes. The last time we tried, they turned on their heels and ran back onto the playground. No, the best way to market these muffins, we found, is to just have the kids make them. Through the magic of hands-on participation, kids somehow overlook the fact that in this case, a delicious muffin doesn't have to knock them over with its sugar content.

The only trick to these muffins is assembling a somewhat unconventional list of ingredients. For instance, you may not have oat bran--full of vitamins and fiber--or whole wheat pastry flour on your pantry shelf. But we found these readily available at the local Whole Foods. The blueberries in this case were the frozen variety, a stock item in most supermarkets.

Start by whisking together your dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl: 1 1/2 cups oat bran, 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour, 1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour, 2 teaspoons baking soda, 2 teaspoons baking powder, 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon salt.

In a separate bowl, beat 2 large eggs, then mix in 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsweetened apple sauce, 1/2 cup orange juice, 2 tablespoons canola oil, 1 teaspoon vanilla extract.

Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and mix together, scraping the sides and bottom of the bowl, just until everything is incorporated. Then fold in 1 1/4 cups blueberries.

Grease a standard muffin tin (we used cooking spray) and spoon in the batter. Scatter about 1/4 cup rolled oats over the tops of the muffins and give them a gentle pat. Then place the tin in a 400 degree oven for 18 minutes.

The finished muffins turn out light, moist and bursting with blueberries. Pour yourself a tall glass of cold buttermilk to wash it down.

Note: You can also add 1/2 cup coarsely chopped walnut pieces to the muffin batter for a bit of crunch.