DC School Meals: Back to the Future

By Ed Bruske
Contributing Editor

There’s a quiet revolution underway in the District of Columbia’s school cafeterias.

This month, schools began ditching pre-made, heat-and-serve meals and converting to fresh-cooked lunches. In some schools, the meals will actually be cooked in on-site kitchens.

So far, 74 of the city’s 121 public schools are involved in the transition from so-called “preferred” meals to “fresh-cooked.” Up to now, lunch has been delivered to D.C. schools in the form of little plastic boxes assembled in a food factory, then warmed in an electric hot box at the school. Kids line up at lunch time and take their warmed boxes, each sealed with clear plastic like something you’d get out of a vending machine.

Of the 74 schools currently involved in the transition, 22 already were equipped with kitchens and now will be making meals on site. The rest–those without kitchens of their own–will be receiving fresh-cooked meals from 11 different high school kitchens around the city.

Say goodbye to all those little plastic boxes. Say hello to actual plates of freshly made food–just like the old days, more or less.

Healthy meal advocates have been pushing schools to remove processed and junk foods from cafeterias and replace packaged meals with breakfasts and lunches cooked from scratch using fresh ingredients. Critics contend that too much school food is overly processed and contains too much fat, sugar and salt, not enough fresh fruits and vegetables.

Whitney Bateson, dietician for Chartwells, the company that manages food service for D.C. Public Schools, said students should notice a change in the quality of food they find in the lunch line. Under the new scheme, Bateson said, students “are gaining access to more whole grains, more fresh food, and more variety in fruits and vegetables, and being exposed to less sodium through our transition to freshly prepared food.” Chartwells, which provides meals to more than 500 school districts around the country–more than 2 million children daily–feeds about 30,000 D.C. school children each day out of the approximately 40,000 enrolled in the public school system, by far the largest single feeding program in the city. About 20,000 other children are enrolled in public charter schools. Charter schools act more independently where meals are concerned. Each charter school contracts individually with a food provider, in many cases small catering companies.

Schools are being swept up in the modern movement for healthier, more sustainable food. Baltimore schools, for instance, have taken a leading role, introducing local produce into school meals on a large scale. The school system there recently came under fire from meat industry groups after introducing “Meatless Monday.” Healthy food advocates are now watching to see what Congress does with the pending reauthorization of the federal child nutrition program, which provides school meals through the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As part of the $12 billion federal budget for school meals, the USDA currently pays $2.68 for each school lunch that qualifies for full assistance. Many critics argue that the federal government needs to spend more–perhaps much more–to make school meals truly healthful.

The Institute of Medicine recently issued new recommendations for school nutrition that call for a limit on calories and sodium in school meals as well as more whole grains, more fresh fruit and vegetables. Some authorities believe that adopting the new standards could add 20 percent or more to the cost of school meals. The Obama administration has proposed adding $1 billion to the federal budget for all child nutrition programs.

Exactly how this might improve what DC school children see on their plates remains to be seen. A new D.C. Farm to School Network is working with Chartwells and local charter schools, exploring ways to introduce more local produce into school meals.

Ed Bruske is author of The Slow Cook blog.

Written by Ed Bruske

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