The Slowcook at Spydog Farm The Slowcook at Spydog Farm

D.C. School Food on the Skids–Again

January 16th, 2013 · 8 Comments · Posted in food news, kids, school food

Food services director Jeff Mills proved to be a shooting star

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.

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  • troy myers

    Hey Ed – Whatever happen to the boxes of rebate data you received from the FOIA request you submitted to DCPS? It’s too bad you didn’t put that information to good use.

    Did you know that the NY District Attorney settled with Chartwell’s for $18m?

    Look no further, this is where the money went.

  • Becky

    Wow Ed. I’m shocked at how inaccurate this story is. When is the last time you engaged Council, Jeff or other parents working to improve school food? Did you cover the most recent hearing? Read the testimony? Review the audit? Ask about what was goin on behind the scenes?While Jeff may not have been part of the screwed up bureaucracy of DCPS , he- in fairly short order- mastered what was wrong and how to fix it. Perhaps his approach with the Chancellor was less than politic, but I’d argue that no one would have survived if they presented a vision that clashed with her insular approach to “core competencies.” I’d request that you please remove this post and revisit your assumptions. This is deeply harmful and not factual.

  • Fellow Food Service Director

    I have no idea how they are ever going to convince anyone to come to DCPS after they way the treated Jeff Mills. There are many of us that are running a successful, profitable, and high participation in-house school food service departments … what we are lauded for and respected for by our districts and cities would be fuel for the fire in DC.

  • Ken Hurley

    How do you know a vision for self-operating kitchens hadn’t been “full articulated” to school administrators and to Chancellor Henderson in particular? It seems to me that the chancellor has zero interest in considering any scenario that doesn’t include Chartwells. The Chartwells partnership is a disaster and we have a leader in Henderson who “shuts out” anyone who pushes for change. When you have this kind of ego driven, inflexibility at the highest level of management, open dialogue will always be shot down regardless of whether or not a Jeff Mills or Mary Cheh adjust their approach or tone.

  • troy myers

    I read your post about rebates and, gosh, for someone who claims they understand how rebates work, I’m shocked that you would think you reached the end of the road with this story. Have you read the recent audit report!?!?

    Did you analyze the rebate data to see if there was a correlation between what DCPS/Compass spent per month or per year with each food company and the percentage of rebate money they received back? If you did, you would realize there wasn’t one. How is that possible? Did you notice how the amount of rebates DCPS received went up dramatically after Mr. Mills brought attention to them? They almost doubled, even though food sales stayed relatively flat. Did you interview anyone from Compass about this?

    It’s too bad you didn’t dig deeper, and report your findings to the DC Inspector General. Then you could take some credit that you deserve for improving food in DC Schools.

  • Ed Bruske

    Troy, thanks for detailing those concerns. I would heartily urge you to pursue them and let me know what you find out.

  • Mendy Heaps

    “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.” – SOME places in Colorado 🙂