Anthony Tata, a former brigadier general and career Army officer in charge of procurement in Afghanistan, is the chief operating officer for D.C. Public Schools, second in rank to chancellor Michelle Rhee. Tata was a close reader of our recent series of articles on the food served in D.C. schools–Tales from a D.C. School Kitchen–which questioned the highly processed and frequently sugary fare being served to children on a daily basis. Tata told The Washington Post that he is considering other options besides the school system’s current food provider, Chartwells. You won’t find him disparaging Chartwells in this interview with The Slow Cook, except to say that school officials “are working with Chartwells to address concerns.” Tata does say he is looking for ways to include more local produce in school meals and is considering a switch from highly-sweetened flavored milk. And there’s a new director of school food services on the scene who is particularly keen on school gardens.
Question: First, some background. Can you tell us what the situation was like for food services in D.C. Public Schools in 2007 when Ms. Rhee took office as chancellor? How was food being prepared at that time?
Answer: The District ran all aspects of its food service operation “in house.” Secondary schools provided fresh cooked meals. However, elementary school meals were “pre-plated” and not cooked fresh on site. The meals were packaged off-site by a third party vendor and delivered to schools where they were heated at the school by school staff. The number one issue raised consistently by students was that the food did not taste good. As a result, students did not eat the meals, and many meals went to waste. In addition, DCPS consistently lost money (over $30 million in the three years before the Chancellor’s arrival) due to low participation rates and paying for wasted meals. Shortly after the Chancellor’s arrival, we began a pilot program to improve food quality at a handful of DCPS schools.
Question: What was your vision for food services after taking office, and why did Chancellor Rhee elect to outsource, or contract, the food provider role for D.C. Public Schools?
Answer: After careful analysis, DCPS determined it could improve the quality of food and reduce financial losses through contracting with an external company to manage food service operations. In addition, the decision to contract for food service was based upon the idea that a school district’s core competencies lay in teaching and learning, not in some of the business essentials such as food service. Given the millions of dollars the program was losing, DCPS studied the problem and determined that finding a proven food services company to execute the program would save money and improve food quality, as it does in many large school districts.
Question: How did you come to select Chartwells?
Answer: Like any large contract action, we selected Chartwells through a competitive solicitation process. DCPS publicized a request for proposals, received those proposals and selected a board to review them. The board used the pre-defined criteria to evaluate the proposals including overall contract cost, financial condition of the vendor, and proposed transition plan. Additionally, there was a student taste testing with each of the possible vendors. The board chose Chartwells based upon its performance against the selected criteria and the taste testing.
Question: What were your expectations from Chartwells as far as the type and quality of food they would provide?
Answer: DCPS expects Chartwells to provide our students with nutritious food that adheres to USDA guidelines and tastes good, as specified in their contract with us. We also expect that Chartwells work with us to implement the most cost effective food services program possible.
Question: Until this year, schoolchildren were being fed prepackaged “warm-up” meals from a sub-contractor. Who was that sub-contractor and where were the meals being prepared?
Answer: Middle schools and senior high schools were receiving fresh cooked meals every day and still do. Elementary schools were being served the prepackaged meals prepared by a company called Preferred Meal Systems, Inc. that had been involved in the district for years. Preferred Meal Systems, Inc. is headquartered in Berkeley, IL and the meals for DCPS were prepared in a Preferred Meal Systems, Inc. facility just outside of Laurel, Maryland.
Question: Did you form any opinions about those prepackaged “warm-up” meals?
Answer: The students’ opinion is what matters most, and as I visited schools and participated in taste tests with students, they believed we could do better than pre-packaged meals.
Question: How was the decision reached to discontinue serving prepackaged warm-up meals and switch to something called “fresh cooking” or “fresh cooked”?
Answer: The students wanted better tasting food, and we believe fresh cooked meals taste better. We began the process of converting all 76 elementary schools from prepackaged to fresh cook in August 2009. We completed that conversion in January 2010. Over the previous six months, we established six production sites at high schools and retrofitted the 76 elementary schools to be able to do basic kitchen functions required for fresh cook operations.
Question: Were you at all surprised by the type of food and the food preparation at H.D. Cooke Elementary School as described in the series of blog posts that appeared recently in The Slow Cook blog?
Answer: In 2009, DCPS began a full-scale analysis of the food service program and Chartwells operations in our schools. The analysis is on going, and we are working with Chartwells to address concerns and continue to improve food services operations.
Question: That series of blog posts described only conditions at one elementary school. Do you think that fairly depicted the food being served throughout the D.C.Public Schools system, or are there schools experiencing a different kind of food service?
Answer: The food services program at each school is designed to be standardized. That being said, there are logistical factors at each school that will differ. Those factors include the size of the lunch periods, the physical structure of the cafeterias, and the experience of the staff.
Question: Are you satisfied with the food being served in D.C. schools, or do you have something else in mind?
Answer: We set a high bar for our students’ health, and I will most likely never be completely satisfied and always strive to do better. That is why DCPS continuously strives to improve the nutritional quality and taste of the food we serve our students. For months we have been developing new programs to increase participation and satisfaction rates among our students, including school gardens, breakfast in the classroom, and farm to school programs.
Question: Besides the heavily processed nature of the food being served at H.D. Cooke Elementary, one of the things that made a particular impression on me was the amount of sugar being served in the meals there. Do you have any concerns about that, in light of the finding by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control that the District of Columbia has the highest rate of adolescent obesity in the nation?
Answer: DCPS is concerned about the health and welfare of our students, including their sugar intake. We are in the process of analyzing the food services program from all factors, one of which is the nutritional value of the food we serve, including the sugar content.
Question: Some school districts have stopped serving flavored milks or are offering them to students only occasionally because of their high sugar content. Do you foresee anything like that happening in D.C. schools?
Answer: Yes. In fact, our Food Services staff are currently researching alternative milk products to flavored milk that are attractive to students but do not contain as much sugar.
Question: Is it true that the job of food services director for D.C. Public Schools went unfilled for an entire year? If so, why was that?
Answer: The position was vacant for most of the year during which time the Office of the Chief of Staff to the Chancellor, and later my office, effectively managed food service operations in all of our schools. DCPS was committed to finding the best possible candidate to fill the position and took that time to conduct a national search for that person.
Question: What, exactly are the responsibilities of the director of food services for DCPS?
Answer: The responsibilities of the DCPS director of food services include overseeing all food service providers to our schools, analyzing the operations of the food services program, and ensuring that DCPS students are provided high quality, nutritional food.
Question: You recently hired Jeffrey Mills to fill the position of food services director. How did you happen to hire him, and could you briefly describe his background and qualifications for the job?
Answer: Jeffrey Mills was hired after a national search for a food services director. We had 107 applicants and performed 18 interviews, after which we chose Jeff due to his background in the food services industry and his demonstrated success in improving food quality and ability to effectively use resources.
Jeff has owned and operated restaurants and has served as a consultant to many hotel and restaurant groups. He has the background in food service and the entrepreneurial spirit to improve the DCPS food service program while maintaining efficiency in its cost.
Question: What is Mr. Mills’ mission, and what is your vision for school food going forward?
Answer: My vision for the food service program is to provide the highest quality foods to our students. Jeff’s mission is to create a food service program at DCPS that parallels the best school food service programs in the country.
Question: The “Healthy Schools” bill currently pending before the D.C. Council calls for schools to use locally sourced farm goods in school meals “whenever possible.” How realistic is that?
Answer: The term “whenever possible” to define the frequency of DCPS’ ability to serve locally grown and processed foods will vary based on many factors, including seasonal availability and cost. That being said, I personally feel that using more locally sourced foods is a realistic goal for the future. In fact, DCPS began researching our options in this regard prior to the proposal of the Act.
Question: We are constantly told that school food budgets are extremely tight, that schools typically have about $1 to spend on food per meal. Is that about right? How tight is it?
Answer: Yes, the budget is always tight. Our goal is to implement creative ways to increase quality and offerings while keeping costs low.
Question: How much are budget considerations a factor in trying to reach the kind of food service that is envisioned in the “Healthy Schools” legislation?
Answer: As a public organization, the costs of new program initiatives are always a factor in whether or not we can implement them. As part of the analysis of our food services program that we began last year, we are analyzing the costs associated with various program improvements, some of which are included in the legislation, to determine which would be the most beneficial and fiscally responsible.
Question: President Obama this week released his proposed budget, which includes an increase of about $1 billion annually in the Child Nutrition Act to be split between subsidized school meals and other food programs. That means an additional 18 cents, more or less, for each subsidized school meal, or less than the cost of an apple. Were you hoping for more?
Answer: I am pleased with any increase, as it benefits the students.
Question: The “Healthy Schools” bill calls for increased physical education, and actual physical activity, for children in Kindergarten through grade eight. Do you think that will interfere with children learning core subjects such as reading and math?
Answer: Regardless of how the learning environment may change or expand, DCPS students will have the resources they need to continue their upward trend in core subject proficiency.
Question: Finally, “Healthy Schools” calls on D.C. schools to embrace the idea of school gardens, to establish means for providing technical support to build gardens, to work gardens into the school curricula, as well as finding ways to teach children about the benefits of locally grown foods. Does all of that sound feasible to you?
Answer: In the long term, yes, it is feasible. In fact, one of the first initiatives that Jeff Mills mentioned to me when he was interviewing for the position of Director of Food Services was that he wanted to create community gardens for our students. Since we hired Jeff, he has been researching possible methods to expand the school garden programs at DCPS and has begun building relationships with possible community partners.