A School Food Opportunity Too Good To Waste

[Emilie Cassou is a DCPS elementary school parent and a sustainable food systems specialist. As she details here, she and other DCPS parents are leading an effort to get healthier food served to DCPS students.]

By Emilie Cassou

DCPS prides itself in having some of the best nutritional standards in the country. Reading about how school meals are supposed to incorporate a rainbow of fresh, local produce, antibiotic-free meat, and whole grains could make anyone hungry! But breakfast at DCPS school on a recent morning included sausage biscuits and packages of processed cakes, followed by sausage patties, chicken melts, and baked fries for lunch (alongside healthier items like fruits and vegetables).

An opportunity for change is on the horizon: The Healthy Students Amendment Act (HSAA), a bill slated for a vote by our city council this fall, amends the Healthy Schools Act of 2010, the landmark law that did things like raise DC’s school food nutritional standards, expand its farm-to-school program, and introduce free breakfast. If it passes, the HSAA will take steps to increase breakfast participation, update sodium and minimum physical activity standards, and require DCPS to explore a central kitchen facility (in line with a DC auditor report recommending that DCPS bring its food production in-house). Laudably, the HSAA also embraces the Good Food Purchasing Program, which offers a set of procurement guidelines pertaining to local sourcing, labor, animal welfare, nutrition, and the environment.

Yet despite all these good things, the HSAA is missing a chance to significantly raise school food quality and participation. To do so, it would need to increase the availability of healthy, plant-rich meals at our schools. The expected economic upsides of doing so–before even factoring the benefits of preventing chronic disease–make it a clear win-win. Potentially kid-friendly, plant-based entrées like chili, fajitas, beans and greens, rice bowls, stir fries, falafel, burgers, dals, and casseroles need not be costly and can even be a celebration of DC’s diverse cultures. Raising food quality, moreover, is the key to raising participation rates in the long-run, offering a more structural approach to cutting back food waste and enhancing financial viability.

As things stand, our kids are consuming too few vegetables, too little fiber, and large amounts of meat. On a positive note, the HSAA would compel DCPS to make vegetarian options available each week, whereas right now, their provision is only “strongly recommended” by DC law.


A recent offering of egg at a DCPS school. Copyright 2018 Emilie Cassou

But in practice, the HSAA’S mandate is unlikely to bring about needed change; DCPS menus already feature meat-free options at every meal. The problem is that these options are not health-promoting. Meat-free entrées served in DCPS schools typically consist of a highly processed grain product covered in cheese: items such as cheese pizza, quesadillas, and grilled cheese sandwiches. These foods may appeal to kids and even be manufactured to comply with standards, but they are part of a dietary pattern that is making the first signs of heart disease show up in children as young as ten, and bringing about the ever earlier onset of type 2 diabetes. Cheese, for example, contains more salt and fat (but less fiber) than potato chips, and bovine pregnancy hormones, as well as opiates (casomorphins) that are highjacking kids’ tastes.

DCPS and its contractors appear to be making efforts to improve lunch offerings. For example, SodexoMAGIC, the contractor for most DCPS schools, is experimenting with two new, warm, plant-based entrées this school year. And DCPS’s other food contractor, DC Central Kitchen, has already mainstreamed several cooked plant-based dishes into its lunch options. These initiatives are genuinely welcome, but we also need a change in policy.

We need to raise school food standards to ensure that genuinely healthy options are on the lunch line every day. That is because without higher nutritional standards, school food providers will continue to weigh the important objective of getting kids to eat against that of getting kids to eat healthily. Getting kids to eat is the top priority for DCPS and its contractors—as well it should be, with so many of our kids reliant on school meals. Getting kids to eat also means less food waste, and for the contractors, higher reimbursement rates.

Thus in all likelihood, as long as existing school food standards continue to allow the city to serve kids compliant foods that stoop low to appeal—rather than incentivize food services to make healthy foods desirable to kids—school lunch implementers will remain locked in a zero-sum framing of these two objectives. This reality is on display when DCPS and its contractors make it clear that they are willing to try offering kids healthier options, but also that they are prepared to backtrack if those foods wind up filling the waste bins more than kids’ bellies–and that popular items like pizza, hamburgers, and quesadillas are here to stay.

With the HSAA, DC council members have an opportunity to put the motivation to get kids to eat to work for kids’ health. That is why earlier this year, 167 DCPS parents and families from over 32 schools addressed a letter to David Grosso, who chairs the council education committee, urging him to enhance the HSAA. Specifically, the HSAA should be amended to require DCPS to proactively serve minimally processed, warm plant-based entrées at every lunch—preferably entrées that have been developed, tested, and marketed to appeal to children from a range of backgrounds.

The many benefits of embracing plant-strong options at schools are borne out by the experiences of progressive schools and school districts, including right here in DC. Yet to the extent that operating costs are a central consideration, the HSAA could help shift the discussion onto empirical grounds by requiring DCPS to commission an independent study of what it will take to offer minimally processed, plant-based options on a daily basis. Such a study could examine what the food will look like on lunch trays, how it will be supplied, and what it will save in terms of both operating costs and avoided disease. It could also identify recipes as well as marketing and educational measures that will make DCPS’s new menus a success.

If you care about school food quality, consider contacting council members to let them know that you would like to see the HSAA strengthened (the HSAA will go before the council’s education committee on October 24, and then it should head to the entire council for a vote in the first half of November). You can also click here or email me directly at emilie.cassou@gmail.com. Another venue for involvement is the DC School Food Advisory Board, a public forum started by DCPS and DC Greens this year. The board meets quarterly and will hold its next meeting in December 2018.

The bottom line is that all our children deserve minimally processed, warm plant-based entrées at every lunch—preferably entrées that have been developed, tested, and marketed to appeal to children from a range of backgrounds.

One thought on “A School Food Opportunity Too Good To Waste

  1. I really hope the HSAA passes. It would be a progressive policy for the health of DC students, the wellbeing of animals, and the sustainability of our planet! Why wouldn’t anybody want those outcomes?


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