Testimony of Becky Levin, parent of Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan Student
DCPS Food and Nutrition Services Program
Council of the District of Columbia, Education Committee
September 30, 2015
Members of the DC Council, thank you for the opportunity to speak with you about food and nutrition services in D.C. Public Schools and what you can do to promote good nutrition in our school system, how to maximize the effectiveness of tax payer dollars funding school meals, and strategies to consider as DCPS moves forward to select either new vendors or a new system for producing meals in subsequent school years.
My name is Becky Levin, I am the mother of a third grader at Capitol Hill Montessori at Logan, a coordinator of the school’s Health and Wellness Club, and a Commissioner on the D.C. Healthy Youth and Schools Commission. At Logan, 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. I’m also an advocate working on Child Nutrition Reauthorization currently pending in Congress. I talk to a lot of school food service professionals, nutritionists, and other advocates working very hard to make school meals healthier, delicious, and appealing. There are fantastic examples across the country that can help the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) greatly improve our school meals. DCPS has had some promising initial successes. I am confident that with thoughtful consideration, such as convening hearings like today’s, and the proper oversight DCPS can once again be a leader in providing excellent and student-embraced school meals.
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 for the districts nearly 46,000 students- about 8 million meals a year – should be a priority, especially since twenty-six percent of D.C. children are living in poverty.
School meals are a lifeline for poor students to access better health, a better learning experience, and a better future. I want to emphasize this. Nutrition in schools should be a core focus of the public school system, and- yes- I fully recognize that there are many challenges facing DCPS. Already, DCPS makes decisions about whether or not to open schools in bad weather, recognizing some children may not eat all day if schools are not open. Every day that school is open is an opportunity for students to not only learn but to become healthier.
Thank you Councilman Allen- 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’m very interested in your proposal to create a Food Policy Council and Director for D.C. Thank you also Councilmembers Elissa Silverman and Brianne Nadeau for joining Councilmembers Allen and Cheh in the vote of disapproval for DCPS to continue the Chartwell’s contract.
I encourage Council to build on this new beginning for DCPS school food to improve student health and school meals by taking a serious look at the next critical step, selecting a responsible vendor or vendors, preferably local vendors that will provide scratch cooking, rather than the large, multi-state vendors, many of whom have proven that they are simply out to maximize profit with little regard for either quality or transparency. Ultimately, the best step would be to bring 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. These large, multi-state food service management companies have increased deficits, decreased quality, hidden rebates, and profited at the expense of inferior nutrition for children. Despicable.
The recent $19.4 million settlement with Chartwells, regardless of whether the contractor admits fault, is a clear sign that the privatization, accountability, and procurement in D.C. government specifically is a problem. Despite repeated and continuous opportunities to hold this vendor accountable, it took a whistleblower lawsuit from outside of DCPS to begin to clean this mess up.
In order for the Healthy Schools Act to achieve its potential, the DCPS food services team needs to have experienced, professional and stable leadership. If meal service is not produced in-house, then DCPS needs to very carefully select a trustworthy partner or partners as vendors and carefully manage the contract. It’s also essential that there be transparency, accountability, and sustained high quality in all meals and snacks. Oversight from Council is needed here. Problems with food services procurement, contract review, cost overruns, and quality has been a problem for too long. Council should also require and direct DCPS to improve outreach to and coordinate with parents, students and teachers to improve satisfaction, reduce waste, and increase participation. It’s my understanding that participation rates have dropped significantly, but the data is not readily available or transparent. Ambitions new goals should be set to increase participation. Participation data should be publically available and reported to Council in a standardized format broken out by individual school and with a comparison to participation numbers when they were at a peak.
Food waste is a problem, because many students do not like the food being served, a big change from a few years ago. I encourage DCPS to work together with students, parents and DCPS faculty to make meals more engaging and appealing. A few suggestions include forming an advisory board of students and faculty, holding a contest for new meal entries similar to what the First Lady Michelle Obama has successfully accomplished with Let’s Move, holding townhall meetings for input, and having food services representatives attend PTSO meetings to provide updates on changes and field questions. A survey is a fine beginning, but it’s important to create and sustain a dialogue rather than quickly disseminating a one-time gauge of satisfaction.
Food waste, however, is a byproduct of meals, even with high meal satisfaction. But there’s a better way to handle it than just pitching out food. Composting was supposed to be provided, but it’s no longer happening at our school. This should be a requirement throughout the school system. There are also some very simple, common sense approaches to reducing plate waste. Give students more time to eat lunch. An extra 10 minutes would be helpful. Schedule lunch before recess instead of afterward. Studies indicate that students eat more after recess. And I know that noise is an enormous issue in our school and many others. Noise abatement is important, so that the environment is conducive to eating.
Schools around the country are crafting more innovative and economical ways to produce healthy meals and increase meal participation. Successes are popping up in Boulder, CO, in Memphis, TN and locally in Baltimore, MD. Let’s learn from their successes. Overall, 87 percent of large school districts across the country run food services in-house and schools 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.
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- fruit smoothies, 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’ve watched the same students 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!
Tasty school meals can achieve the same success. 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, effective leadership, and strong oversight that places high quality food service and health as the top priorities. I urge you to reject empty promises from large, for-profit vendors; provide consistent oversight and accountability; ensure that DCPS is prepared to greatly improve oversight and accountability; and engage parents and students in the process in order to do what’s best for the children and taxpayers of the District of Columbia.