After the Centers for Disease Control release a report showing an 18 percent obesity rate among high school students, attacking the food service in Washington, D.C., public schools has been a hot button issue. 

“The health problems affecting our students are both real and significant,” said District Ward 3 Councilwoman Mary Cheh.

The city is now taking proactive steps in finding a solution for the problem. Part of the solution was hiring Jeff Mills as the new head of food service for the public schools.

“ innovation, his ability to get external support and his ability to tap into ideas on how to scale this food service program made him an excellent choice,” DCPS Chief Operating Officer Anthony Tata told the {AFRO.}  “In the interview process, he came across as the one who could make the transition from private to public sector and just was very passionate about improving the quality of our foods and streamlining the efficiency of our programs.”

Mills is a former restaurateur who ran the Biltmore Room, now closed, in New York. The Biltmore Room received a three-star rating from the {New York Times,} but this will be an entirely different challenge for Mills.

“I think he would love to make major changes in the way kids eat in schools,” said Ed Bruske, a food writer who has been very critical of the food service in the District’s schools.  “He is constrained by the food budget and how far it will stretch to incorporate those things.”

Coming to Mills’ aid is Cheh.  Cheh has introduced a Healthy Schools Bill to try to mandate that the schools serve only certain kinds of foods and provide the funding for that food.  It is something that Cheh believes is necessary for the well-being of the students.

“We are responsible for ,” said Cheh in a recent hearing on the bill. “If we don’t care for their physical health and their well-being, then we would be making as grievous of a mistake and committing as grievous of an offense as if we didn’t care for their academic needs.”

One step that many say Mills could take is to remove some of the a la carte items out of the schools. 

“We’ve got a really bad culture of schools dosing kids with sugar,” said Bruske.  “Just by getting rid of some of those Pop Tarts, cinnamon buns, cookies, strawberry milk and things like that, can make lunch a whole lot healthier.  That doesn’t cost anything.”

Tata not only agrees with Bruske, he claims changing the food and going local can actually help with the system’s budget deficit.

“I think that if we do it right it will actually drive cost down a little bit,” Tata said.  “We polled some of the local farmers in Virginia, Maryland and D.C. and we think that we’re going to be able to hold the price point down if we do it the right way.  That’s what Jeff has been spending some time doing.”

Before Mills was given the job, DCPS contracted Chartwells-Thompson School Dining Services to provide students’ meals.

“It was the management team’s belief, and I wholeheartedly agree, that a school system’s main effort ought to be in teaching and learning,” said Tata.  “Those things that are not in the wheelhouse of teaching and learning we have to take a look at if it’s more efficient to look at someone, who’s main, core value is food service.”

Not everyone is convinced Chartwells-Thompson has been doing a great job.  Bruske spent a week at H.D. Cooke Elementary School and admits that he was not pleased with what he witnessed.

“The meals were full of starch, sugar and vegetables that never get eaten because they’re way overcooked,” Bruske said.  “It’s just kind of dreadful and it’s largely because nobody wants to pay to feed kids well.”

On the contrary, Tata says Chartwells-Thompson has provided DCPS with great service and meals that meet that USDA standard.  However, he did admit that the DCPS “continues to strive everyday” to improve its meal service.

Despite the disagreement on the dining service company, all parties admit there is a real effort to improve food in DCPS. The issue of health among the city’s children is now being taken very seriously.

“When half the kids are either overweight or obese, that’s a big problem,” said Bruske.  “You can’t make better food unless you’re willing to pay for it.” 


George Barnette

Special to the AFRO