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Tales from a D.C. School Kitchen

January 19th, 2010 · 12 Comments · Posted in kids, Tales

Chronicling a week behind the food line

Chronicling a week behind the food line

I recently spent a week in the kitchen at H.D. Cooke Elementary School here in the District of Columbia observing how food is prepared. This is the first in a six-part series of posts about what I saw.

The lunch menu said chicken patty on a bun, but there was a problem: ingredients for the week had never been delivered. Tiffany Whittington, food service manager at H.D. Cooke Elementary School, conducted a quick mental inventory of ingredients she had on hand and decided to improvise lunch for the school’s 326 students.

She opened the door to the walk-in freezer and grabbed several 5-pound bags of something called “beef crumbles,” then pulled a 10-pound box of curly egg noddles and two 6-pound cans of tomato sauce off a shelf in dry storage. The pre-cooked “beef crumbles” would be heated in a steamer; the egg noodles as well. Then Whittington would slather the beef with the canned tomato sauce, spice it up with a little garlic powder, and finally stir in the noodles and some pre-shredded cheese.

Voila: “Baked ziti!” Whittington declared.

So began my week as an observer in the kitchen at H.D. Cooke in Adams-Morgan, the school where my 10-year-old daughter attends fourth grade. I was anxious to see how the kitchen operated because until recently, school meals in the District of Columbia had been made offsite by an industrial vendor and sent to the schools pre-cooked in individual plastic packaging. It was kind of a sorry site, watching kids line up for those plastic-sealed packages–too much like airline food.

The food service operator for D.C. Public Schools, Chartwells-Thompson, decided to ditch the plastic meals and replace them with something called “fresh cooked.” Under the new regime, D.C. students would eat food prepared in their school’s own kitchen, or, if the school didn’t have a kitchen, at the nearest high school and delivered.

This sounded like a step back to the future, more like a time not too distant when school meals were made from scratch mostly by ladies who knew something about cooking. In the case of H.D. Cooke, it meant a brand new kitchen as well. The school recently underwent a multi-million-dollar renovation, including the addition of a full-scale commercial kitchen with walk-in freezer and refrigerator, gleaming stainless steel pot sinks and work tables, and lots of brand new equipment. There’s a huge hood with fans in the ceiling to ventilate a double Blodget convection oven and a set of Cleveland commercial steamers. A Winston holding cabinet keeps food warm after it’s been cooked.

Presiding over the operation is Whittington, a Ballou High School graduate who took a job with D.C. Schools in 2001 after finishing a course in food service. Cooking out of a real kitchen was a change for her. “They just gave me a recipe book and said, ‘Here you go!’ So here I am.”

Over the next few days I’ll be describing in detail what “fresh cooked” means. One of the first things you notice in the kitchen at H.D. Cooke is a big empty space under the ventilation hood where a cooktop and range would be. Whittington explains that a stove has been promised for some unspecified date in the future. But the way food is prepared in D.C. schools, a cooktop–an appliance most of us would consider essential in our home kitchens–is completely unnecessary. There are no pots to boil water or cook food in. That’s all done in the steamer using stainless steel pans.

Since nearly all of the ingredients for school meals in the District arrive frozen or canned, and in many cases already cooked, they are quickly prepared in the convection oven or in the steamer. Some things, such as the “cheese sauce” used on lunch nachos, aren’t even removed from the plastic bags they arrive in before they are heated in the steamer. They are then emptied into a stainless pan and placed directly on the lunch counter to be served.

The system is precisely designed for optimum efficiency, convenience and economies of scale. As I discovered during my week in the H.D. Cooke kitchen, “fresh cooked”–the food our children are served here in the nation’s captiol every day–is a perfect reflection of  the prevailing industrial methods that rule our nation’s food supply. Meal components are highly processed and reconstituted, some with ingredients provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s commodities food program, and come from factories all over the country. Human intevention has been reduced to an absolute minimum. It’s cheap, it’s fast, and it’s easy. Whittington and her two assistants spend more time serving and cleaning up than they do actually preparing the food.

The cooking regime has been so simplified, I can’t help asking Whittington what she did with her time before the advent of “fresh cooked,” when all the meals arrived pre-assembled in packages. “We had to warm it up,” she replied.

What’s missing are fresh, whole ingredients. Children receive fresh fruits and vegetables as morning snacks. Sometimes salad is served in the lunch line, and occasionally whole fruits are offered with lunch. But this represents a world of difference from the food service Mattie Hall remembers. Nearing retirement, she now assists Whittington. “In the ’80s we did it all,” she says. “Grits, sausage, pancakes. We made bread rolls from scratch, baked in the oven.”

Also missing is flavor. “I don’t like most of the food because it doesn’t taste good,” says my daughter. Still, Whittington serves about 280 lunches each day, most of those fully subsidized by the federal government to the tune of $2.68 per meal. D.C. schools offer free breakfast to all students. About 150 children at H.D. Cooke participate. In all, Chartwells feeds about 30,000 of the approximately 40,000 students enrolled in the the D.C. Public Schools system on any given day, making it the biggest feeding program in the city. Another 20,000 students attend public charter schools, which hire their own food providers, usually small catering companies.

Most of the children at H.D. Cooke qualify for free lunch based on family income. Some qualify for partially-subsidized meals. A few must pay. They have accounts with the kitchen that they occasionally pay into. Money rarely changes hands in the food line, but in order to keep accounts straight and collect the federal reimbursements, Whittington must keep careful track of who is taking meals. She sits at one end of the food line with her computer, making a note of each student with a click of her mouse. “I know every kid in the school–unless they’re new,” she says.

Based on the number of needy students Whittington serves, the school also qualifies for donations of commodity foods–meat, poultry, cheese, for instance–from the U.S. Department Agriculture. The school system uses the donations like credit to purchase finished food products from suppliers, which helps hold down costs.

When I fist arrived at the H.D. Cooke cafeteria, or “Kid’s Stop Cafe,” breakfast was just ending. Slices of French toast–delivered cooked and frozen, then reheated–were displayed on the steam table. There were also individually packaged “whole grain” strawberry-flavored Pop Tarts available, as well as individually packaged Goldfish “Giant Grahams,” fruit mix from a can, and a choice of four milks in eight-ounce (one cup) containers: regular low-fat, regular non-fat, chocolate and strawberry-flavored.

Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, Whittington was preparing vegetables for lunch. The mix of green beans and lima beans, corn and carrots had arrived at the school frozen. It was then placed in the steamer, a unit that looks like a windowless stacking oven, but circulates steam to heat and cook food. Into the vegetables Whittington stirred scoops of “Smart Balance Buttery Spread.” According to the label, it was made of a “blend of palm fruit, soybean, canola and olive oils” plus “natural and artificial flavors” and “beta carotene color.”

She then started on her “baked ziti.”

At first I couldn’t tell what the “beef crumbles” were, even though they were plainly visible in their plastic packaging. They look like Sloppy Joe mix without the sauce. But because of their dull, greyish-brown color, I first thought of baker’s chocolate. Reading the label, I saw that the contents were in fact “beef, vegetable protein, caramel color” along with a list of chemical flavorings and preservatives. It came from a company in Cincinnati, Ohio, and was supplemented with “USDA commodities.”

The canned spaghetti sauce was made by Giovanni Food Co. in Liverpool, NY. It was not as red as the spaghetti sauce I am used to and I found the pale color a bit odd and off-putting. The label said it contained “tomato paste, dextrose/and or high fructose corn syrup, potato or corn starch.” Perhaps what it needed was more tomato.

After mixing the beef, the sauce, the noodles and some garlic powder, Whittington added two cheeses: Land O Lakes brand shredded mozzarella and shredded cheddar from five-pound bags. Whittington gently stirred the mix again with her gloved hands, then into the holding cabinet it went. Whittington said she likes to add cheese to a lot of the food she serves because it adds flavor. “I think the kids really like it.”

Rounding out the day’s lunch menu: Del Monte diced peaches from six-pound cans, sweetened with corn syrup. As you will see in the days that follow, there’s one thing beside cheese the kids at H.D. Cooke are rarely lacking: sugar.

Tomorrow: How industrial methods make school food fool-proof and cheap

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  • megwolff

    Sounds like they are making some effort, but they need to get the older people back in to teach them how to cook whole foods, and hire a few servers/clean-up people.

  • EuclidStMom

    How sad. I was really excited that our neighborhood school was going to have a kitchen and was supposed to have “real” food. So much to fix in DC schools.

  • TheParisFoodBlague

    oh no, how depressing. it always shocks me, the difference between american school food and french school food.

    do you remember in the 80s? when reagan wanted to consider ketchup a vegetable?

  • VegMom

    Thanks so much for sharing your experience! As a concerned parent, I look forward to reading your other posts. I want to point out an upcoming opportunity to help improve school lunches. Congress is revising the Child Nutrition Act, which currently makes no provision for vegetarian foods. We need to ask Congress to help schools serve more fruits, vegetables, vegetarian foods. You can get involved in a campaign that’s working to do just that:

  • jane4dc

    I’d hoped the pizza was more benign but even that has a creepy list of ingredients. Thanks for this indepth reporting.

  • lostchef68

    I would have to say that you are very observant, articulate in your wants and totally cluless all at the same time!!! In what part of this country or any other do you think ingredients for food preperation are soley provided in your home state. They way you depict the situation is it would be ok if the chesse Sauce / Beef were packaged in DC/or VA. You also have a habit of redundantly mentioning that something was in a bag, can etc… Can I ask you a simply stupid question? Why is it a crime to use cheese sauce from a bag or steam noodles from a box in a school and ok when it is almost exactly what you served your PRECIOUS CHILD for dinner last night? Really go ahead and trash the lack of thought or dietary requirments in the meal but don’t be stuck up enough and act as if you or most other parents are providing so much better!! Ciao

  • RLM

    If you reaaly want to see how bad it is go to Hearst, Mann, Orr, and Moten @Wilkenson by Feb 1. Chartwells is understaffed, poorly managed and does little more than put out fires. They are now transferring food all over town in trucks that are likely not properly refrigerated .

  • ReesieKitty

    I think its really interesting how HOSTILE some people are when you point out ingredients that aren’t healthy. They really seem to take it personally that parents might want ALL the kids at school to have a fresh, healthy lunch prepared on-site and are determained to make it out as ‘impossible’ to do.

    At my son’s old school, our elementary school and one other were part of a pilot ‘test’ program for healthier lunches. All our food was always prepared on-site at the local high school kitchen and then brought in by truck and reheated.

    Fortunately for us parents, the school board and the head of food services at the high school were totally cooperative and wanted to work WITH us- a rarity. They forced our food service contractor to provide healthier, lo-fat, lo-sugar,lo-sodium products in place of less nutritious ones.

    Our PTO raised money to buy a steam table and we were in business! Food made with fresh and healthier ingredients was still prepared at the high school- but instead of being brought in sealed trays, it was brought over and placed in the steam table. We had a vegetarian option every day as well.

    We measured the success of the program by measuring food waste. At first, it was a little higher, then the same as before- and finally it was LESS than before, proving that kids WOULD eat the healthier meals and waste less food.
    The program was a success and was adopted for all the elementary schools in the district.
    Since then we’ve moved. My son’s new school is excellent in every way- except for the same old, bad lunches!!! For some reason this is the one issue no parents or administrators seem to care about changing.

  • Mark

    Yeesh, really not surprised at this, the first thing to go from a school budget besides the arts is nutrition

  • SA

    The problem with serving “fresh” or “real” food is that the majority of people arent willing to pay for it. You can have it cheap, or you can have it good, but you cant have both. It would be impossible at that scale of cooking.

  • Ed Bruske

    In fact, it’s not impossible, but it does take a lot of brains and skill. Read the series on Berkeley and on Boulder.

  • Shedvil

    I am a former food service worker for DCPS and the food is not nutritional at all. Most of the time the workers are rude to the kids, they improvise all the time, and most of them are alliterate (basic reading, comprehension, and math skills). Now they use computers and knowing some of the workers they aren’t computer literate either (Outlook, Word and Excel). They would have to call the District Manager at Chartwells to find out step bt slow step what to do. These are the people feeding your kids, that’s one of the reasons I left the company. We had recipes to follow but it was “so hard” for some of them to catch on. I don’t like that company at all.