The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

Tales from a D.C. School Kitchen: Part Five

January 23rd, 2010 · 4 Comments · Posted in kids, Sustainability, 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 fifth in a six-part series of posts about what I saw. You can find previous posts here, here, here and here.

One unfortunate aspect of the sewer system design here in the District of Columbia is that in large swaths of the city it connects with the same pipes that carry storm runoff. Thus, when we get a heavy rain in the nation’s capitol, raw sewage flows underground past the capital dome and right into the Anacostia River.

Needless to say, the Anacostia, which flows into the Potomac not far from the Jefferson Memorial, does not see a lot of bathers.

When architects began planning renovations to the 100-year-old H.D. Cooke Elementary School building a few years ago, one of the things they focused on was a way to prevent rain water from flooding the sewer line. Huge holes were dug on the school grounds and into them were placed holding tanks the size of tractor trailers. Now when it rains, the water that flows off the school’s roof and paved areas is diverted into those tanks where oil and grease and other pollutants can be filtered out, the water released slowly into the storm drains.

The rain water capture system was just one of many “green” features in the $35 million school rehab. Prior to the renovations, windows were so decrepit they were falling into the classrooms. The school got all new insulated windows that also filter ultra-violet rays. Special care was taken during demolition to recycle old drywall and other building materials. To save water in the new school, the boys bathrooms were fitted with waterless urinals; new toilets have a water-saving liquid or solid flush option. To economize on electricity, lights were equipped with motion sensors, windows were designed to make maximum use of daylight. To hold down heating and cooling costs, and to maintain healthy, comfortable air quality inside the building, special monitors and fans and ventilation systems were built.

When our daughter enrolled at the school this past fall, we simply marveled at the facilties: the brand new gymnasium and cafeteria, the gem of a library, the computer rooms lined with sleek new monitors and keyboards, classrooms filled with new furniture. It was a far cry from the ancient schoolhouse a few blocks away where our daughter had been attending charter school. Little did we suspect that behind all the improvements, the food service operation at H.D. Cooke would be turning this “green” school into an enviro hog.

Also included in the renovations was a new school kitchen. Walk-in freezer and refrigerator, convection ovens, steamers, holding cabinet, stainless pot sinks and work benches–it’s all there. But if you’re a chef with a crazy fascination with commercial kitchen equipment like me, you also notice right off that there is no dishwasher in the H.D. Cooke kitchen. And that’s because there are no dishes to wash: other than the tables the kids eat off, everything about the cafeteria operation is disposable.

One wag has said that the most important tool in school kitchens these days is a box cutter. During the week I was there as an observer, there were days when the boxes that frozen and canned foods arrived in grew into a pile near the door to the loading dock. Pizza, chicken nuggets, hamburger patties, tater tots–from factories around the country, it all comes sealed in plastic bags inside cardboard boxes. The empty boxes made it easy for me to read and copy ingredient labels into my little reporter’s notepad. But what happens to all those boxes after that?

According to D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), author of  “Healthy Schools” legislation now pending before the Council, about two-thirds of D.C. Public Schools and most charter schools do not recycle. Even at DCPS schools that do recycle, waste from food service is neither recycled nor composted.

Practices in the cafeteria reflect the drive for convenience and lower labor costs. Just as food preparation is engineered to be quick and easy, using lots of pre-cooked frozen meal items, food service has been designed to require the least amount of human intervention. Disposable plastic rules. Kids bus the tables themselves. The only thing that comes back to the kitchen is the uneaten food from the steam table, and that is simply flushed down a commercial-size garbage disposal.

When students enter the food line, or “Kid’s Stop Cafe,” they pick up a non-recyclable Styrofoam tray that doubles as a plate. At breakfast they choose from Pop Tarts and Goldfish “Giant Grahams” wrapped in foil. Individual servings of cereal come in plastic tubs with plastic seals. Fruit juice is distributed in 4-ounce plastic containers with foil seals. Eating utensils are displayed in individual plastic packaging: a plastic spoon that’s also a fork–known affectionately as a “spork”–a plastic drinking straw and a paper napkin.

Drink cups are unnecessary. Besides fruit juice, the only other beverage in the cafeteria is milk. All of the students take milk with breakfast and lunch and drink it directly out of the disposable carton it comes in.

Students sit at tables in the large dining hall eating off their Styrofoam trays, drinking their milk. As they finish, they’ve been trained to walk their trays over to one of the large trash cans at the other side of the hall and drop it in. Everything from the meal service–foil packaging, plastic tubs and cups, milk cartons, spoons, napkins, Styrofoam trays–soon joins the cardboard boxes and plastic bags and industrial-size cans from the kitchen in a dumpster to be hauled off to a landfill.

Do the math and the amount of trash becomes scary. H.D. Cooke serves about 150 students for breakfast and another 280 for lunch. That’s 430 Styrofoam trays every day, five days a week, nine months a year. Styrofoam, the brand name for petroleum-based polystyrene, is light as a feather yet practically impervious to the usual forces of decomposition–no one can be sure how many hundreds of years it may to break down in the environment. And this is just one school. There are some 40,000 kids enrolled in the D.C. Public Schools, and another 20,000 in public charter schools.

The environmentally unfriendly nature of school food service poses a number of obvious contradictions. Signs around the school, hand-drawn by students, extol the importance of being kind to the planet. My daughter, who attends fourth grade at H.D. Cooke, is a member of the school’s “green team.” Every week, she says, the “green team” members patrol the school, handing out $1 citations to people who leave their lights on or forget to turn off the computers. But in the lunch room, she and all the other kids are filling trash cans twice a day with mounds of non-recycled refuse.

Under the “Healthy Schools” bill, all DCPS schools, including food service, would be required to recycle paper, bottles, cans and cardboard. but only “when funds become available.” Schools would also be required to compost food waste, and the bill calls for a pilot composting program that would involve schools as well as the city’s departments of public works and the environment. But again, provisions would only apply “once funds were appropriated.”

As for the Styrofoam and all the plastic entailed in school meals, “Healthy Schools” would require that schools switch to “sustainable products” within four years. At what cost remains to be seen.

Tomorrow: Conclusions

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  • jeffw

    Thank you for a great series of real-world, on-the-tray feedback. I hope we can make good use of your report. We worked hard last Spring to have the kitchen upgraded for the Fresh Cook program at Cooke School; the Chartwells-Thompson promotional flyer describes the program thusly:

    “… all meals are either prepared in an on-site kitchen, or prepared and sent to the school from another school within the district…All schools within the district follow menus that meet the Federal nutrition standards for the National School Breakfast and Lunch Programs…the menus served include fresh fruits and vegetables whenever possible, are low in fat, saturated fat, sodium and cholesterol, are trans fat free and contain age-appropriate amounts of fiber, protein and vitamins and minerals.”

    You’ll notice there’s no mention of sugar, and there are claims made that may or may not
    be accurate, but basically we have to decide:
    a. Are they doing what they promise, and is that good enough?
    b. If not, can we agree on what’s best, or at least better, and the steps to get there?
    c. Do we have what we need – facilities and staff – to procure, store, prepare and serve fresh, unadulterated, healthy food?
    d. How can we make it happen, sooner than later?

    If you haven’t spent a day preparing and serving 300 kids, it probably seems fairly straightforward to multiply your family times 100 or so and you’re done, but I don’t envy the kitchen staff. It sounds great to get fresh local fruits and veggies for 300, not so easy in New England in February. What if the fresh egg truck spreads yolks all over the Beltway – you still have to serve breakfast!

    We can debate the priorities of our local/state and Federal governments, but clearly most school systems’ budgets right now encourage buying cheap or government surplus food.
    Barring an unexpected windfall or a Miraculous Enlightenment, we need to come up with improvements that don’t cost more, or find a way to fund them, or we’ll wait a long time.

    Similarly, we need to keep in mind that DCPS staffing is generally barely adequate or less – Cooke School just expanded its square footage by 25%, but the facility maintenance staff is 25% less than it was before modernization – so recycling and composting are great ideas, but they don’t manage themselves, and to ask the staff to add this to their list is not realistic, unless we can find a way to staff it adequately.

    Kids have a lot of influences away from nutritious food – from their family, their friends, their culture and the marketing industry – it’s not surprising they don’t crave raw broccoli, so we have to figure out how to make it appetizing! Tahini dip, I don’t know!

    Same for cooked vegetables – even frozen veggies can be handled in a tasty and nutritious manner – is there a way to serve them fresh for an hour on the serving line without creating Death By Steam Table?

    Aside from maybe the Berkeley community, the DC area has arguably the best resources and smartest group of advocates on the planet, so identifying the problem is a great first step, but we need to decide if we can agree on basic goals without squabbling about the relative evils of fat, sugar and carbs, and come up with solutions as a team, working with the school system, the food service providers and the food community. We can do better than turquoise “fruit-by-the-foot”.

    Are there successful school systems with comparable numbers that are doing this right?
    Or can we adapt a successful small-scale model to work at our scale?

    If Chartwells wants to work with us and develop a real model program at Cooke, it’ll be quicker and easier than looking elsewhere for a provider. Maybe the White House can help us walk THEIR talk about nutrition and obesity. Hey, it’s only 12 minutes up 16th Street on the S4 bus. Or walk it!

    Thanks again Ed, for kicking our psychic derrieres – now we need to move the rest!

  • Ed Bruske

    Jeff — Thanks for you thoughtful and thorough comments. You are an incredible asset to H.D. Cooke. This series was presented as a snap-shot of what happens in the school kitchen, not an investigation of the food program or of Chartwells. Chartwells appears to be meeting the letter of the law. Apparently, many people don’t realize how those federal rules translate into the food their kids are eating. I don’t think the use of a euphamism like “fresh cooked” is helpful in promoting parents’ understanding of what’s taking place in the school cafeteria. But I hope some of these questions are answered for you in the concluding part of the series.

  • Carl Rollins

    Why can’t the left over food be given to the homeless?

    And why can’t the DC Council fund this bill?

  • ReesieKitty

    This is such a change from the way they eat lunch in other countries. Imagine kids setting up tables in individual classrooms and eating with real plates and silverware and cups. Their teacher eats with them and everyone eats the same prepared lunch together, talking, practicing table manners. At the end of lunch, students assigned to different tasks clear tables, wipe and fold away table covers, gather plates and silverware into bins and wheel them back to the school kitchen to be washed. Then the kids go outside for recess. Sound crazy? They do it all the time in other countries! Why can’t the US be a leader and an innovator with this??? It’s so frustrating how little we settle for with our kids.