The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Jeff Mills Tackles D.C. School Lunches

Jeff Mills Tackles D.C. School Lunches

Shoppers and Trends

August 29, 2010

When he took over the role of director of food service for D.C. schools earlier this year, former restaurateur Jeff Mills inherited a system with the ninth-highest rate of childhood obesity in the country.

What Mills discovered was that the cost of better quality ingredients was not the only prohibitive element to improving what’s being fed to D.C. school children. Instead, he told The Lempert Report, vendor relationships with local producers, distribution issues, and quality control were also obstacles to improving the system.
He explains, “One of the companies we are working with now has contacts with [local] farmers and access to local product at costs of 10 to 30 cents on the dollar. They have a system in place, and taking advantage of their resources will make these programs possible.”
His efforts over the summer generated two new pilot programs that recently debuted in the district – one of which features from-scratch meals made with ingredients from local farms. The contracts for pilot food service models aimed at bringing fresh and local ingredients to 14 schools were awarded to two vendors: Revolution Foods will provide fresh portable meals for seven schools; DC Central Kitchen will provide meals made-from-scratch for seven schools.
“Our goal is to keep the per plate cost as close to cost-neutral as possible. It will be challenging,” Mills says. “We are going to do a lot better than we did the past couple of years with a far better quality product. Our goal is to have the food we serve look like where the food is coming from – for example, chicken will be a whole chicken breast not a chicken nugget.”
But Mills explains that some of the toughest work still to come lies with training staff to handle the new ingredients and meals. Mills’ concern brings into focus an issue many school districts will face as the shift toward fresh products in school lunch programs takes hold.
Experienced cafeteria workers will have to be newly trained in knife skills, and in the proper storage and handling of fresh products. They mostly lack these skills because they mostly have served up frozen, highly processed, packaged foods. How many will be able to adapt is an open question. The added labor costs during training are another concern.
Perhaps supermarkets could help fill the void by offering regional training and nutritional classes for cafeteria personnel, The Lempert Report suggests. More than 31 million children eat a federally funded school lunch daily through the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), yet only 90 cents per lunch is spent on food. Sourcing the best product for the cost won’t be enough to change the content of each child’s lunch if training is not available.
Some retailers have taken hold of the issue already. In Atlanta, kitchenware retailer Mary Moore, founder and owner of The Cook’s Warehouse, hosted cafeteria workers from the City of Decatur for its second Farm-to-School class earlier this month.
The Decatur school-lunch program is a joint project of Matthew Rao of Rao Design Studio; The Cook's Warehouse; Georgia Organics, and the Atlanta Chapter of Les Dames d'Escoffier International. It is meant to teach easy, efficient and inspired cooking to those front-line cafeteria workers who feed our children one or two meals, five days a week. Ultimately, the program’s goal is to find local and organic farms as sources, quick and tasty, low-fat/healthy recipes that work well for large numbers, and fresh food that provides minimal waste and can be stretched to fit the school’s budget. Cafeteria workers in this program also learn professional, safe knife handling skills, as well as skills for properly seasoning food.