Food Service Contracting in the D.C. Public School System
December 20, 2012
Testimony by Becky Levin,
Parent of Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan Student
Members of the DC Council, thank you for the opportunity to speak with you about what can be done to promote the healthiest meals possible in our school system and to maximize the effectiveness of tax payer dollars funding school meals. My name is Becky Levin, I am the mother of a kindergartner at Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan, and a coordinator of the school’s Health and Wellness Club. We are working hard to teach our students and their families about nutrition and to promote healthy eating and living throughout our school’s activities.
We all know that children, like adults, require good nutrition to power their brains so that their minds are well-fueled and they aren’t distracted by a rumbling belly. Excellent nutrition is particularly critical for young children, as their brains are still developing. We also know that proper nutrition and exercise are essential to combat childhood obesity, adult obesity, preventable health complications and sky- rocketing health care costs. Thank you for recognizing that supporting healthy school meals efficiently addresses both public health and education issues and is a prudent and cost-effective investment. Providing the highest-quality nutrition through school meals should be a priority. If DCPS cannot support this priority, then perhaps another city agency can.
Thank you Councilman Tommy Wells- you and your staff have been very open to exploring solutions and are always willing to engage on this important subject. I’d also like to thank Councilwoman Mary Cheh and her staff for spearheading the innovative Healthy Schools Act, which is a critical first step in improving quality and standards in DCPS school meals.
I encourage Council to build on this strong beginning to improve student health and school meals by taking the next critical step, bringing meal production and food procurement back within the public sector instead of contracting with private, for- profit vendors. I recognize this is a very significant step, but there is clear evidence to support this transition.
School food service privatization has failed to economically manage food service and promote and maintain high quality- not just in DC but in New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Michigan, Wisconsin and across the country. The stories are the same- increases in deficits, decreases in quality, hidden rebates, and profits made at the expense of inferior nutrition for children. Despicable.
Chartwells came into DC promising that privatizing school meals would lower costs, but instead they created a $15 million deficit that puts our education system in the red. They claimed their ability to buy in bulk would lower costs, but it appears that they have hidden rebates in a circuitous and deceitful trail. Last summer parents were told that a new, per-meal-served-contract, would save money, but not harm quality. But quality has been sacrificed. This is the same company that served pink slime instead of 100% real beef (that DCPS then banned), served spoiled and rotten food, switched from all-natural organic yogurt to non-organic Trix brand sugary yogurt, and switched from all- natural, antibiotic-free chicken nuggets to highly processed nuggets- with the bottom line of increasing their profit margin instead of promoting children’s health.
In contrast, the Healthy Schools Act and its implementation by DCPS’s Office of Food and Nutrition Services, led by Jeff Mills is achieving stellar and widely recognized progress. I was just in a meeting last week with senior leadership at USDA, and they applauded our local success and the implementation of the new, improved meal pattern.
In order for the Healthy Schools Act to achieve its potential, our food services team needs to be recognized for their achievements and be awarded with the resources to continue their successful path instead of fighting an uphill battle with a for-profit entity.
We need transparency in our school meals system and accountability- both economically and with regard to health. Chartwells and other for profit contractors have proven in cities across the country, that they don’t want transparency or accountability. It’s clear from the reports in the Washington Post last year about the multiple notices to cure that Jeff Mills and his team issued to Chartwells that they are wasting their time and valuable tax payer dollars policing an irresponsible company we do not need. DC can do this better internally.
I applaud Jeff Mills and his team, who have worked diligently on behalf of our kids to push for the healthiest and best tasting meals possible, looking beyond the status quo and envisioning better ways of operation to benefit our children and the District’s taxpayers. Schools around the country are fighting for a better, more economical way to produce healthy meals. Successes are popping up in Boulder, CO, in Memphis, TN and locally in Baltimore, MD. These school systems are successfully moving away from food service management companies, and looking at innovative ways to cook from scratch, centralize meal production, purchase local fruits and vegetables, and introduce children to healthier foods that taste great. I am interested to learn about the report that Council requested to investigate what alternatives to privatization are and what best practices and models may be. I hope that it is a professional, well-researched report that can provide direction for next steps.
Our bottom line should be what is best for kids. Clearly that’s high quality food that is fresh, minimally processed, seasonal and local, free of antibiotics and additives, lower in sugar, with lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. If we don’t invest in this now, then we will be paying for it later in increased healthcare costs. I look forward to hearing about Council’s plans to further improve school meals and hopefully seeing changes for the better.
I’d also like to add that children will eat healthy foods, including vegetables. Our school’s Health and Wellness Club has introduced children to many foods they may have never have eaten before- Brussels sprouts, butternut squash, persimmons, pecans, black beans, plain yogurt, salsa, baked chips, and homemade hot chocolate with much less sugar than in mixes. I watched the same kids make gagging faces at the sight of a squash and then stand in line with twenty other kids for seconds on butternut squash soup. And we ran out of roasted Brussels sprouts, because the children were eating them like candy. Many of these kids- and parents, too- had never eaten these foods or thought they didn’t like them. But when parents and kids tried these foods- which were local, seasonal, fresh, and cooked properly- they loved them! School meals can achieve the same success. We know that increasing consumption of fruits and vegetables decreases risk for obesity and overweight.
Healthy school meals serve an essential role to promote health, wellness, and to introduce new and tasty, healthy foods. Ideally, the DCPS school breakfast, lunch, supper and snack menus can serve as a guide for parents to model and create healthy meals. But we need a willing, responsible partner that places high quality food service and health as the top priorities. I urge you to strongly consider the leadership and success of the Office of DCPS School Food and Nutrition Services, reject empty promises from private vendors, and do what’s best for the children of the District of Columbia- bring school food services in-house.