The Problem With DC School Food -- as Told to DC City Council

06/04/2015 01:22 pm ET | Updated Jun 03, 2016

The following testimony was given on April 23, 2015 to DC Council members at the DCPS Budget Oversight Hearing open to the public. Given the deplorable state of DC school food, with no improvements in sight, I felt it important to share it with you.

"Good Afternoon,

I worked in food service at DC schools between 2011 and 2013. Since then I have obtained two master's degrees from Johns Hopkins, and am currently working for the FDA on food policy. Through this, much of my research and passion have remained focused on school meals. That is why I'm here today.

In August of 2012, the D.C. Council sent Chancellor Henderson a letter urging her to consider bringing food services in-house in order to reduce the cost of the program, which had sustained an average loss of over $10 million annually since 2008 when it was outsourced. In this letter, the Chancellor was told to "have a plan to make its food service program at least cost neutral - if not profitable - within two years."

Two and half years later, the outsourced food services program has continued to lose multi-millions annually, and looks like it will continue doing so into the next academic year.

This is not the case for other large school districts, which are often revenue neutral - or even profitable - through self-operated programs. In fact, any loss attributed to school food services upwards of $1 million is a rare occurrence, even for large districts. A 2012 independent audit prepared for DCPS stated that 95% of school food programs either break even or make money.

Most DCPS schools are served by Chartwells - the same company that paid New York State $18 million in a 2012 settlement due to overcharging for school meals... The same company that caused Connecticut students to boycott school food due to atrocious food quality last year... And the same company that was contracted by DCPS to serve 50 million meals at a cost of $42 million, and then proceeded to serve 15 million fewer meals and charge DCPS $7 million more.

In 2012 the Chancellor was asked to make big changes to control food service costs, but the only real modification made was changing Chartwell's contract from cost-reimbursable to fixed-price. Given that a Chartwell's meal costs DCPS more than the reimbursement rate, this means that the District actually loses money for serving more students. This is not the incentive structure we need in a city where 1 in 3 children are at risk for hunger, and over 70% of students qualify for free and reduced price meals.

The DCPS community was promised that this new contract would save money and not harm food quality, but since 2012, there have been multiple testimonies revealing the decreased quality of the food. As stated in a recent Oversight Hearing, the quality of school food served by Chartwells was described by a DCPS student as "disgusting," "not fresh," and "unsanitary."

Why is DCPS the only school district in the country accruing this kind of a deficit due to food services, especially when the food quality is so deplorable?

With the implementation of the Healthy Schools Act in 2010, legislation with near identical nutritional requirements to the new standards set forth by HHFKA, DCPS was commended for serving "fresher, healthier, and more nutritious meals" that resulted in satisfied students, and higher participation numbers. This shows that we can't blame "new nutritional standards" for the monetary losses incurred from food service, but we can fault a poorly designed and poorly managed food services contract.

Last week, in an analogous situation, the DC Council voted to reject the proposal by Corizon Health for the city's jail. A Washington Post article presented a quote from Deborah Golden that read, "I am happy that the council stood up for the most vulnerable residents in D.C."

Are D.C. youth not just as, if not more so, vulnerable as those incarcerated? Shouldn't the Council be having similar discussions of import when it comes to the wellbeing of our students?

In evaluating the 2016 budget, I urge the council to re-visit that request to bring food services in-house, and consider what it would mean to the students to not only have a food service that didn't take money from their education, but also provided them with quality food that enabled them to take advantage of it.

Thank you for your time."