Food Revolution D.C.

By P.J. Orvetti
|  Thursday, Jul 22, 2010  |  Updated 3:54 PM EDT
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Food Revolution D.C.

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AUSTIN, TX - MARCH 11: An employee of the cafeteria at Bowie High School serves up food during lunch March 11, 2004 in Austin, Texas. The Austin School District is working to make their cafeteria offerings more healthy, but the most popular foods are still fried chicken strips, pizza, and french fries. Concern about increased levels of childhood obesity in the United States has made the food served in public schools cafeterias a much greater concern. (Photo by Jana Birchum/Getty Images)

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The Food Revolution failed in Huntington, W. Va. Can it succeed in southeast D.C.?

British chef Jamie Oliver tried to change the eating habits of what ABC called “the unhealthiest city in America” by reforming the offerings of the school system’s cafeterias. Instead, he encountered bureaucratic bottlenecks, economic difficulties and ingrained cultural realities.

Oliver was baffled to learn that the USDA classifies French fries as a vegetable and was flummoxed when he learned that cafeterias were not allowed to let students eat with knives. One lovely and healthy meal he prepared did not have enough grain content, so store-bought buns had to be added.

A few months after Oliver’s experiment, schools were again serving processed food, and many students were bringing unhealthy “meals” from home. (One of these consisted of potato chips and jelly beans – and nothing else.) A local radio host had said of Oliver, “When he leaves, we’re going right back to what we were eating” – and that’s what happened.

Now, some D.C.-area chefs want to work with parents to overhaul the cafeteria at Capitol Hill’s Tyler Elementary School on a nonprofit basis. The Slow Cook blog says the group “would undo the historically knotty issue of school food finances by putting parents to work in the cafeteria” as volunteers “and using the savings in labor to buy better food, much of it from local growers.”

While the food services division of the D.C. school system has approved, the plan “is still being reviewed by the school system’s procurement division, meaning much paperwork, red tape and potential snags remain between now and Aug. 23, when classes resume.”

Sixty percent of the students at the majority-black school of 300 qualify for free or reduced-price meals through the federal subsidy program.

Cathal Armstrong, of Alexandria’s Restaurant Eve, the leader of the initiative, has been working on the project since meeting with White House assistant chef and food advisor Sam Kass. The Slow Cook says this seems to be “the first time that first lady Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign has extended its reach into a school food service operation.”

One of the parents involved, Dan Traster, said that while many parents worry they will not have the time to participate, others are already eager to sign up.

“People work and they’re concerned about whether they’ll be able to make the time to help in the cafeteria,” Traster said. “But we have many parents who are really passionate about the food issue. They want to do whatever they can.”


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