Tuesday, July 6, 2010

New School Food: Would You Buy a Used Car from this Man?

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Two new pilot meals programs in D.C. schools purport to vastly upgrade meals served in the cafeteria, but at the same price schools are paying for the industrially processed convenience foods currently being served by the system's hired food service contractor, Chartwells.

It sounds a bit like taking your beat up old Chevy to a car dealer and asking to trade it in for a Rolls Royce. Wouldn't that be a great deal if you could get it? But how many car dealers like that do you know?

The two pilot programs, scheduled to begin when school resumes next month, each would serve seven schools, one delivering "portable" meals to be reheated on site, the other making food from scratch. The requests for proposals [RFPs] circulated earlier this year by D.C. Public Schools called for the price to be "revenue neutral" and as close as possible to current federal reimbursement rates, or $2.70 for lunch. Under the "Healthy Schools Act" recently passed by the D.C. Council, schools would receive an additional 10 cents support for lunch, plus five cents for meals that contain local produce.

Besides delivering foods free of hormones and antibiotics, free of artificial colorings and preservatives, free of high-fructose corn syrup and trans fats, and loaded with local produce and whole grains, the contracts call for the vendors to comply with a series of standards, including those contained in "Healthy Schools," Institute of Medicine standards circulated in 2007, and the "gold level" standards in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's "HealthierUS Challenge."

Today we're going to look at those various standards to see what D.C. is asking these vendors to do for $2.70 (or $2.85).

"Healthy Schools," for instance, sets minimum and maximum calorie levels for meals at breakfast and lunch, and according to two different age groupings. Likewise, sodium is restricted at different levels for breakfast and lunch, and according to age. Vendors are required to provide the ingredients and nutritional content of each menu item, and list where their fruits and vegetables come from and whether the growers are engaged in sustainable agriculture practices.

The 2007 Institute of Medicine standards would apply to what it refers to as "Tier 1" foods in school meals. These are "food and fruits, vegetables, whole grains and related combination products and non-fat and low-fat dairy that are limited to 200 calories or less per portion as packaged and:

* No more than 35 percent of calories from fat

* Less than 10 percent of total calories from saturated fats

* Zero trans fats (less than or equal to 0.5 grams per serving)

* 35 percent or less from total sugars, except for yogurt with no more than 30 grams of total sugars, per 8-oz. portion as packaged

* Sodium content of 200 mg or less per potion as packaged."

The "gold" standard for "HealthierUS Challenge" requires the following:

* Students have at least one quarter-cup serving of vegetables to choose from every day of the week. Dark green or orange vegetables must be offered three or more times per week, and of the three at least two must be different. Cooked dry beans or peas (legumes) must be offered each week.

* A different fruit must be served every day. Under the "gold standard," the fruit must be fresh at least two days. Otherwise it can be frozen, canned or dried, or served as juice.

* Fruit juice (100 percent) can be counted as the "fruit" offering only once per week.

* At least one serving of "whole grain" food must be offered each day.

* Only low-fat and fat-free milk can be served.

After accounting for labor and overhead, most schools have less than $1 to spend on the ingredients for their meals. Do you think you could do all this on that kind of budget? Ever wonder why anyone would want to get into the business of catering school food?

1 comment:

  1. This was a very interesting and informative piece, Mr. Bruske. I am pleased to see many of these new guidelines, particularly the requirement to vary vegetable offerings and improve fruit servings.
    It was also a very timely post for me to read. A week from today I have a meeting with Paolo Agostini, the head nutritionist for the city of Rome's DOE. I was so excited to learn about what Romans had done to drastically improve their school meals that I sought out this opportunity to learn from him. I am hoping their model might serve as one for the US to follow in order to achieve these standards.
    In response to your last question in the post, "Ever wonder why anyone would want to get into the business of catering school food?" I ask myself that all the time. It can be a tough and nasty business, so why am I so interested in being a part of it??? The only answer I have, as cliche as it is going to sound, is because of the kids. Nothing makes me more hyped up than helping and watching a student discover that a new (healthy) food is delicious. It makes me know that I have made an impact on that child's life, one that is going to make such a big difference to them in so many ways in their future. It is just thrilling for me! I think from reading your posts about cooking with kids that you know exactly what I am talking about. :) So we press on to find a solution . . . we'll find it.