The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

Sorry, We Can’t Cook: D.C. Schools Say ‘No’ to More Vegetables

March 18th, 2010 · 8 Comments · Posted in kids, Tales, Wellness

D.C. Schools cant serve vegetables kids will eat

D.C. Schools can't serve vegetables kids will eat

In a move that could signal a serious fault line in the argument for more vegetables as a tonic for childhood obesity, drafters of “Healthy Schools” legislation pending before the D.C. Council have skuttled a push for additional produce in school meals after school officials said they cannot guarantee their kitchens can prepare vegetables that kids will actually eat and not throw in the trash.

“More vegetables” has become a mantra of advocates for healthier school food, including first Lady Michell Obama, whose White House vegetable garden created a sensation. The “Healthy Schools” bill, scheduled to come up for a hearing next week, had embraced standards proposed by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) that would require larger servings of fruits, vegetables–especially green and organge vegetables and legumes–and whole grains as part of an upgraded school nutrition package designed to bring school meals in line with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The IOM panel that made the recommendations, working at the behest of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, warned, however, that requiring more produce and whole grains would drive up the cost of school meals, and that there could be no guarantee that children would eat them. The requirement for heftier vegetable servings was dropped from the “Healthy Schools” bill after D.C. school officials asserted they did not want to spend precious resources on food that would only end up being thrown away.

“We heard from many that if schools are serving mushy, flavorless green beans that students are simply throwing away, that doubling the portion size would simply double the amount of mushy, flavorless green beans that are thrown away,” said an aide to Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), author of the bill. “Instead, many have said that we should focus our energy and money first on improving the quality of the foods being served before we consider mandating an increase in portion sizes.”

Advocates of farm to school programs here and across the country contend that schools can serve meals that are more healthful and appealing by using more locally grown produce. But vegetables traditionally are a hard sell in school cafeterias. The foods most favored by children are pizza, all forms of potatoes and corn, in that order. As I found while spending a week in the kitchen of my daughter’s elementary school here in the District, vegetables typically are cooked to death and rejected by kids. A 1996 nationwide survey of school food service managers by the U.S. General Accounting Office revealed that 42 percent of cooked vegetables — and 30 percent of raw vegetables and salad — ended up in the trash.

The move to eliminate additional vegetables from “Healthy Schools” legislation suggests that mandating better school meals may not work without funding improvements to school kitchens. In fact, the trend in school food service for years has been in just the opposite direction–to reduce labor costs, which represent half of food service costs, by hiring less skilled kitchen workers who do not work enough hours to qualify for benefits. Frequently, school kitchens are staffed by “warmer-uppers” whose sole skill is being able to re-heat foods that have been pre-cooked in distant factories and shipped frozen. Sensitive perishables such as vegetables suffer as a result.

“If we’re going to win Michele Obama’s war on obesity and if her ‘Let’s Move’ campaign is going to be successful, then we need to ensure healthy delicious food. We need funds to pay for cooking kitchens, to train staff, and to market to kids to eat the food,” said Ann Cooper, noted school food activist and director of nutrition for schools in Boulder, Colorado.

“That seems like nonsense about kids not eating the veggies…of course they won’t if it looks and tastes like cardboard,” said Debra Eschmeyer, director of the National Farm to School Network. “Kids will eat fresh tasty veggies if they have a chance to access them and learn about them. I didn’t believe it until I saw it with my own eyes hundreds of times. Kids will eat chard, broccoli, beets, etc. and love it when they have a chance to grow it and have a real learning experience.”

The IOM report suggested there might be funds for school kitchen upgrades in the “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” (PDF) program instituted last year by USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan. Merrigan has said that nearly $1 billion in federal grant funds used in the past for building rural fire stations, hospitals and community centers could be allocated to food-related projects, such as building storage facilities for locally grown produce, food markets and school kitchens. But schools would need to apply for the money.

In a separate development yesterday, legislation making its way through the U.S. Senate would provide an additional 6 cents per school meal–something less than $500 million more annually–but that money would be contingent on federally-subsidized meal programs adopting the IOM standards. The School Nutrition Association, representing food service directors across the country, has asked for a minimum increase of  35 cents per meal. But others, such as Cooper, say anything less than $1 a day for each child in the program falls short of what is actually needed.

Still, the retooled “Healthy Schools” legislation sets forth substantial increases in local financial support for school meals, some of which could be used to purchase more vegetables and other healthful ingredients. The bill would provide an additional 10 cents for each breakfast served in D.C. public schools and 10 cents for each lunch, plus a bonus of 5 cents for lunches that include local produce. In addition, the District would fund 50 cents for students who qualify for reduced-price breakfast and lunch, meaning those students would not have to pay for their meals at all.

The bill also provides for construction of a local “super kitchen” where city schools could store and process local produce. The kitchen could also house a greenhouse, bakery or other features and provide a culinary training center.

Significantly, the “Healthy Schools” bill still does not identify funding to pay for the improvements it outlines, but Cheh has vowed to find it.

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  • Carl Rollins

    I also noticed that the latest version of the marked-up bill has deleted the vending machine limitations on unhealthy drinks and snacks. What is the likelihood of a youngster eating from a salad bar for instance if he can walk across the room and get a soda and chips?

    On the “super kitchen;” I think it may be a good idea if it’s placed in the part of town that needs jobs the most and needs the development of vital community food enterprises. I favor returning kitchens to schools.

    Phelps vocational high school spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a new greenhouse with a flawed design. I recommend fixing the old DCPS greenhouses before building new high tech ones with little planning. Will Allen and others have taught us that hoop houses can be built for a few thousand dollars each.

    Millions of dollars of produce can be easily grown in DC virtually year-round in small hoophouse villages on vacant school land and DC-owned property. Students can learn the trade at schools, adults can get jobs doing this at non profit or for profit outfits.

    Baltimore has a farm! Why aren’t these elements in this bill?

  • Carl Rollins


    The vending requirenments are still in there–they have been moved to a new section–but they do appear to be weakened.

  • Aerangis

    Ed, Why do they need to cook them? It seems to me that they could increase vegetable portions just by adding raw foods to the mix. Salads, fruit, carrots, tomatoes, snow peas, snap peas. I also wonder why cooked legumes, vegetable soups (low salt versions) are not used more frequently. I presume that this is a paradigm shift that is, frankly, difficult for the industry to grasp?! How about brown rice and oatmeal? Did you hear the NPR short on snacks from March 2, 2010? This is another dimension that drives me bonkers! Between school snacks, aftercare snacks, birthday parties, holiday celebrations uggggh!

  • espringf

    I think carrot sticks would be a good place to start. Ok, 30% of raw veg ends up in the trash…but that’s better than 42%. Carrot sticks are widely loved, and let’s face it, if you add some ranch dressing, I bet only 10% of the carrots get pitched. Maybe we add other raw, finger-food veggies to the mix, too.

    The second tier can be getting them to love well-prepared chard, but we might as well go for the low-hanging fruit, er, vegetable, first.

  • Diane

    School kitchens can be used for more than school lunches. This town is experimenting with a catering service and senior lunches prepared at the high school (completed 2001):

    This might be a good way to increase the revenue and support better food for the students.

  • meldogsun

    Thanks for the post. I’m a fellow grassfedonthehill consumer and until people aren’t afraid of a little real butter and sea salt, even I wouldn’t want to eat the vegetables. It not only HAS to taste good for kids to eat it, but it should! And what about phasing out some of the junk (strawberry milk, cookies, soda, chips, etc.) to pay for more of the good stuff? What about water? Do kids drink water anymore? How much would a filter system for the school cost to get drinkable water (not plastic bottles) in the cafeteria where the kids could fill up washable cups? That would be a huge step in the right direction.

  • SchoolLunchLady

    The “cookies, soda, chips, etc.” are a la carte items – the students pay for them in cash. The junk subsidizes the kitchen. Our kitchen has a net profit of $3000 a month. That extra money pays for the carrots, the hard boiled eggs, the freshly cut strawberries and the person to cut it. We offer six hot lunch and three cold lunch menu items. We serve 235 lunches a day with one full time cook, two part timers, and two cashiers. Around 180 students get reduced or free lunches. The students want juice or water and we want to serve it to them. We serve what falls off the truck and what the district administrator says we can serve. We don’t like it either. Our dishwasher is an unpaid developmentally disabled intern from the high school – can’t wash 235 cups. We barely have time to put it out and put it away. We want 1) another full time cook 2) a walk in refrigerator 3) higher quality meat and cheese 4) an administrator with culinary training 5) a school community that fights for great fresh food for the reduced/free lunch students while sending their kids to school with a packed lunch.