Hopes for a quick and easy fix to the D.C. Public Schools’ cafeteria woes were snuffed out this week with the reported ouster of food services director Jeffrey Mills.
And you can’t say we didn’t tell you so.
This was a situation designed for failure. Mills, a restaurant designer who parachuted into DCPS from New York, had no real background in the byzantine universe of school food. He failed to fully articulate a vision for re-making D.C.’s school kitchens as self-operating, or a long-range plan for getting there. School administrators, meanwhile, could not shake their insistence that schools are incapable of making their own food. Their only recourse, they maintained, was to outsource cafeteria operations to a giant food service company like Chartwells.
It all came crashing down when the results of Mills’ better food initiatives continued to show multi-million-dollar deficits. Mills had vastly improved cafeteria fare by getting rid of junky processed foods, sugary cereals and strawberry-flavored milk. He eliminated the Pop Tarts and scrambled eggs shipped frozen from Minnesota and began installing salad bars and making spinach lasagna from scratch. But the red ink that had prompted Michelle Rhee five years ago to hire Chartwells just got worse. Mills, who made no secret of his disdain for the contract with Chartwells, was in over his head. Still, he insisted the fault was inefficiency and money-grubbing on the part of the corporate vendor. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson insisted on being boss no matter what. She had to take the heat from an angry D.C. Council.
Now Mills is gone and Chartwells, which helps make a fortune for its British parent company–the multi-billion-dollar Compass Group–is still here. In the end, Mills, in a desperate effort to make his case, funneled stacks of insider documents to his primary sponsor and Henderson antagonist, D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3). Henderson shut him out: Mills could not get a hearing for his food improvement plan in the chancellor’s inner circle. He may have been on the right side of all the current school food concerns–he may have had bigt dreams of serving our kids great food made largely from scratch–but among Henderson’s management team he became the proverbial outsider looking in.
What are the lessons to be learned from Mills’ three-year tenure and spectacular flame-out here? First, DCPS is not so much incapable of running its own cafeterias as it is incompetent to discern the best way of doing it. School officials are foremost bean counters who know little or nothing about food service. But they could learn. Or at least they could seek guidance from others who have been there before and slain the beast. But an overnight re-make of school food service requires gifted and experienced talent. Ann Cooper stands out. Or, D.C. could learn a few lessons from school systems that have made great strides incrementally. Burlington, Vt., and St. Paul, Minn., come to mind. Colorado has made ingenious use of federal grant money to hire experts such as Kate Adamick to teach local cafeteria managers how to revolutionize their cafeterias with food made from scratch at much lower cost.
It is axiomatic that making food from scratch in a well-run kitchen is cheaper than using processed food or hiring out.
Secondly, efforts to reform school food go nowhere in a toxic political environment such as the one here in D.C. If examples of successful food cafeteria re-makes teach anything, it is that everyone involved–school officials, political leaders, parents–all have to be on the same page, pulling in the same direction. You can’t expect great results when certain Council members insist on scoring points by publicly raking the schools chancellor over the coals. In many ways, D.C. has been one of the nation’s most generous jurisdictions when it comes to supporting the school food program. Those huge deficits could be viewed as subsidies. What politicians should be asking is whether all that money was going to purchase better food, or just to line the pockets of hired vendors.
Or maybe some of both?
Finally, a school food revolution has to be a movement. It doesn’t arrive neatly packed in a piece of legislation. Rather than circular firing squads and political theater, what D.C. needs is a charismatic rainmaker to step forward and rally all of the interested parties around the same cause. Is Kaya Henderson truly committed to food service as a health and wellness priority? Then she should be willing to open herself to new ideas and come to the table. Is Mary Cheh willing to rise above politics and find the best person to lead the D.C. school food revolution? Then she needs to drop the rancor and start a more friendly conversation.
Admittedly, feeding kids really well on pennies is a tough assignment. Successful visionaries in this field are few and far between. But if the characters in our local drama want to get anywhere, they need to start thinking outside the box. Otherwise, we will just see more dreamers like Jeff Mills come and go, and what kids see on their cafeteria trays may start looking like the bad old days again.