DC leads the way in school food change

Story by Jeff Mills

This year, The District of Columbia School District will become a role model for the rest of the country with their fresh food offer. Jeff Mills is leading the effort and he shares with us the rigorous process he and his team have put into place to ensure that DC kids are getting the best and freshest food possible. Way to go Jeff. You are one of our heroes now!

Last school year DC Public Schools (DCPS) held our first annual Strawberries and Salad Greens Day (picture). We procured fresh, leafy greens and bright red, flavor-popping strawberries from farms within 120 miles of the District, and our students’ reaction was incredibly positive. I have never seen kids excited about second and third helpings like I did that day. The event was a success because we demonstrated that if you take the time to source healthy, local, great-tasting, and cost-conscious food, students will enjoy it.

We’re approaching the whole food service program for this school year with this point in mind. As a starting point we’re committing to purchase at least 20 percent of our food from the Mid-Atlantic region for this school year. It does not suffice to simply read nutrition information and manufacturers’ specs. In order to ensure what we serve our students is of high caliber, we need to see the food, taste the food, and learn the process of how that food is grown, processed, kept, shipped, and served.

Every decision we make for our kids requires extensive research. For example:
“¢ It’s not enough for a farmer to tell me he can deliver 50,000 apples, I want to see the orchards, inspect the facilities, and taste the apples. I’m meeting with farmer co-ops that can handle our capacity, visiting their farms, and tasting their products.
“¢ If there’s a burger on our menu, we need to know everything about it, from where the cow was grazing to how the meat is processed and delivered to the schools.
“¢ We didn’t simply scratch flavored milk off our menu; we conducted taste tests of every skim and one percent milk vendor that could handle our volume.
“¢ My team and I have tasted more than 300 different products and recipes in the past two weeks, and we plan to continue at that pace, if not more rapidly, until we feel satisfied that every product on every tray tastes good, looks appetizing, and is nutritious.

The wholesale transformation of food service at DCPS is proving to be a major undertaking, but we have seen how possible meaningful change is, as more students enjoy breakfast and lunch in the cafeterias. We’re hopeful that this holistic approach will have a lasting impact on everyone involved in the process chain from suppliers to processors, and most importantly, the students.

About the author: Jeff Mills is the Food Services Director for DC Public schools.


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