D.C. public schools reevaluating lunch program

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A top D.C. public schools’ official said this week the District is reevaluating its multimillion-dollar contract with a major national food service provider and considering significant reforms to its school lunch program.

The official acknowledgement of the decision to improve student meals in the District — a bellwether city for school reform that also suffers the highest child-obesity rate in the nation — comes on the heels of an investigative report by The Washington Times and as lawmakers weigh the nutritional standards of the food that schoolchildren eat.

“We’re taking this very seriously,” said Anthony J. Tata, chief operating officer for D.C. schools, who pointed to farm-to-school food delivery, school gardens and nutritional content on the school district’s Web site as key goals. “We’re looking for an innovative model, to balance nutritious food with a strategy that is cost-effective.”

In early December, Mr. Tata said, D.C. schools solicited “best practices” information from other school districts and school lunch providers with an eye toward possibly rebidding a contract that is only two years old.

Hired in 2008 by D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, Chartwells-Thompson School Dining Services, a subsidiary of the Charlotte, N.C.-based Compass Group, serves meals to 2.5 million schoolchildren daily in more than 500 districts nationwide, but has a history of food-safety scares and concerns over the nutritional content of its school menus.

Ms. Rhee and D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty said at the time they hoped to improve school meals and save the city money by privatizing food service.

However, The Times’ investigation in January found that Chartwells, with a contract that could total $140 million by 2013, had served sugar cereal for lunch and nachos every day in other school districts, failed to meet federal requirements for iron in D.C. schools, and neglected to post nutritional information online.

In 2007, Chartwells failed to inform school officials in Racine, Wis., of previous reports of tortilla contamination and a national recall by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). More than 100 children in Racine who ate the tortillas became ill.

By the end of the current school year, the District will have paid Chartwells more than $50 million. The contract gives the District the option to renew in May. Mr. Tata said the District is looking to consider “all available options.”

Chartwells is one of three companies that responded to the recent request for information. The others are: SodexhoMagic, the company that lost the 2008 bid to Chartwells; and Revolution Foods, an Oakland, Calif.-based provider that partners with Whole Foods and local growers to produce handmade meals.

“This issue has been a stepchild to officials who treat test scores as the end-all be-all,” said D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh, who has introduced a bill to raise the nutritional content of school lunches. Asked why the District decided to announce a reevaluation of their current program, she said, “My sense is they are responding in part to the investigation in The Times, and acknowledging that students’ nutritional needs need to be met.”

Ms. Cheh, who has talked with both Ms. Rhee and Mr. Tata, added: “There’s going to be legislation. I don’t think they want to be left behind.”

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