Invisible Voices

a voice for the voiceless

School Lunch Program

When I was at AR07 I ended up going to a few sessions that I didn’t expect to get much out of, but which ended up being great resources for me, bringing up ideas I’d never have thought of otherwise.

One of those sessions was “Engaging Youth,” and the obvious reason (for anyone who knows me) that I’d not get much out of it is simply that I’m not around youths very often. My upstairs neighbors in passing, a couple kids who help out sometimes at the sanctuary, and that’s about it. Several topics were brought up in this particular session, and one of them really struck me for the huge impact it could have.

And that was the National School Lunch Program. This program feeds 65 million kids. This program outspends prisons and the military on food. This program is the largest draw on agriculture in this country.

This program is also providing substandard nutrition to kids (and rumor has it that the taste leaves much to be desired), and there are school districts that are looking to revamp their lunchroom offerings, so it also would seem to be a good time to get plant-based whole food options into the lunch room. There is a manual and video that is supposed to help teach us how to present these ideas, and I know very little about how much help either of these would be, but if you’re interested you can check out Earth Voice Food Choice for more information.

In addition to the sheer numbers this could impact, there’s also the point that our beliefs tend to be formed around age 10-13. We also know that getting people to think about veganism is easier when they’re not eating animal products and when they are eating tasty vegan food. It’s just logical.

I started thinking about this again recently when I read about DC’s School District looking at outsourcing their food to improve quality and nutrition. From what I’ve read, it is sorely needed at the DC Public Schools, with kids often opting to skip lunch or to eat it out of the candy vending machines as opposed to deal with the food (a term to be used lightly) available in their lunch lines.

Edit: I was told that the link to the pdf doesn’t work for everyone, so here is the pdf linked to above, pasted into the body of the post:

DCPS to Provide Enhanced Food Services for Students through Outsourcing

Outsourcing plan expected to increase food quality and decrease costs

Washington, DC—This morning, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and Chancellor Michelle Rhee announced the District of Columbia Public School’s (DCPS) plan to outsource the school system’s food service operations—a move that will save DCPS millions of dollars in expenses and offer new, nutritious meals to students.

“Since gaining control of the schools, I’ve noticed that education transformation comes in a variety forms, even food services,” said Mayor Fenty. “In order to effectively provide nutritious food that’s cost effective, the Administration has decided to turn to food service experts who have the capacity and expertise to provide this difficult, yet much needed service.”

Revenue Loss & Poor Food Quality

In Fiscal Year 2006, DCPS’ Office of Food and Nutrition Services (OFNS) provided more than 8.8 million breakfasts, lunches and snacks to DCPS students at a net loss of $9.5 million. In fact, OFNS is projected to lose $10.8 in Fiscal Year 2007 and $11.6 in Fiscal Year 2008. Less than 40 percent of DCPS high school students eat school provided lunch. Most urban schools districts maintain participation rates above 70 percent.

Currently, OFNS serves pre-plated meals to elementary students while high schools prepare food onsite. However, many DCPS students say they don’t take part because they simply aren’t satisfied with the taste and quality of the meals and are seeking other options.

“The Mayor and I want to introduce students to a variety of foods to help train their palates to choose healthier foods for the rest of their lives,” said Chancellor Rhee. “It is part of what a well-rounded education should offer. Good nutrition can certainly help enhance academic achievement.”

Request for Proposal

OFNS is preparing to release a Request for Proposal (RFP) Feb. 17 to solicit bids from food service professionals who can effectively manage DCPS food operations and provide fresh, high-quality, nutritious food.

The winning proposal must:

  • demonstrate the ability to manage every aspect of DCPS food service including absorbing 222 DCPS full-time school-level food service
  • guarantee a profit or reduce the existing loss with an additional agreement to pay DCPS if greater losses are realized.
  • include a plan to eliminate the deficit in subsequent years.
  • illustrate a realistic and effective plan that offers fresh, hot cooked food, and provide equipment and infrastructure for each school.
  • include a plan to rollout new menus, kitchen infrastructure and equipment in highs schools across the school district in the 08/09 school year.

Food Service Pilot Program

Last year, OFNS began implementing a pilot program in two elementary schools, C.W. Harris and Garfield, and two high schools, Woodson and Cardozo, to test new lunch menus and gauge student participation. Tailored to mirror the school system’s vision for new and improved menu options across the district, the pilot menus include an array of fresh salads, specialty sandwiches, meat varieties and vegetables. Daily entrees range from teriyaki beef and Asian stir-fry to tacos and hamburgers. High school menus offer a la carte options that include a food-court type setup to minimize long lines for quick meal selections.

After implementing the pilot program, food sales and student participation increased significantly. For example, Woodson’s sales increased from $180 per day to $900 per day just two weeks after the program began. With such incredible feedback from students and faculty, DCPS anticipates increased food sales District-wide with the expansion of the program.

Free and Reduced Meals

In past years, DCPS has failed to ensure that students who qualify for the federal Free and Reduced Food program complete the necessary paperwork for eligibility. The federal government reimburses school districts for meals for students living at or near the poverty line, and DCPS’ lack of accountability has resulted in the school system missing out on thousands of dollars in reimbursements. For example, DCPS pays $1.68 for each pre-plated meal provided by the current vendor, and the federal government reimburses $2.49 for students who are eligible for free meals. Going forward, DCPS is committed to ensuring that increasing student participation.

Next Steps

The DCPS food service RFP will be formally advertised Sun., Feb. 17. Hard copies will be available at the DCPS central office along with a downloadable version at on Feb. 19. Bidders will be invited to attend a pre-bid conference and participate in school site visits, coordinated by OFNS. In addition, the office will also hold vendor presentations for student input and taste testing opportunities. The outsourcing plan will require privatization legislation for Council approval as well as a financial impact statement prepared by the office of the Chief Financial Officer (OCFO). All dates to be determined.

There are several associated issues that thus come up – the impaired learning that will come from poor nutrition at lunch, and the long term effects that will have. The impact on the health is another point, both short term and long term as kids are indirectly taught poor eating habits. For kids who live at or near the poverty line, school lunches might be their main meal of the day, and their only chance for a balanced meal – we all know (or should all know) of the scarcity of quality produce or even marginal grocery stores in the poorer neighborhoods.

It does sound like the DCPS is encouraging plant-based options in their request for bids. The question in my mind is to wonder what companies will compete and where they’ll cut costs to make it an affordable proposition for themselves. I imagine it will leave out the majority of fresh vegetables, let alone organic.

On a personal level, I wouldn’t know where to start to encourage the schools to provide vegan options in schools. I simply think that it is a good idea, and that the time looks like it might be now. At least in the DCPS.


8 responses to “School Lunch Program

  1. Kelvin Kao February 26, 2008 at 10:23 pm

    I believe what appears on the menu still depends on the cost though. Even if vegan food costs less to manufacture than meat, if the companies in charge of lunches can get meat at a lower price (since it is subsidized), then they are still going to go for meat.

  2. pattricejones February 26, 2008 at 11:02 pm

    The Veg Society of DC has done some great work with the DC school system so they might be the folks to ask “where to start.”

  3. Eric February 27, 2008 at 12:10 pm

    This reminds me of Erik Marcus’s “Meat Market.” The school lunch program was one of the main focuses for his recommended dismantlement approach. I don’t remember it that well, since I read it almost three years ago, but I think he made a similar point.

  4. Deb February 28, 2008 at 5:32 pm

    @ Kevin – certainly, one of the points in the RFP is that they either guarantee a profit or reduce the loss, with a plan to eliminate the deficit as time goes on. Cost is always an issue, and there are other issues as well, such as schools being required to provide milk, and no alternatives, or risk losing funding altogether

    One of the points in the RFP was that options be provided, and vegetables were included in that. I know NYC schools have been going through changes as well, with mixed results, trying to get kids to eat vegetables.

    I certainly don’t think it is outside the realm of possible for schools to provide vegan options. If I were a parent with kids in school, I’d be really vocal about demanding food with nutritional value be provided.

    @ pattrice – thanks!

    @ Eric – well, I guess I learn something new every day! And betray my ignorance on “Meat Market”.

  5. David Miller (Beaufort SC) March 14, 2008 at 8:25 am

    Im a students i think we are who you need to talk to if you want a profit. We are the ones who have to eat the food anyways. How do you expect to make money off of us if we dont like what you sell. Its just like any other market if you want to sell something you have to intrest your market. The solution is simple Feed us what we like. At my school Batter Creek High School, we have under gone some changes with our lunch. They used to serve Fries and a variety of hambergers. Now they have a more nutritious philly chesse steak hot pocket thing that “sucks”. When i used to go in lunch line there was a long line and everyone ate luch. Now theres barely even a line. The pizza line though takes almost all luch to get through though. Alot of people skip school during luch and go to a fastfood place. Sure i geuss if you want to give us something thats goods for us, THEM MAKE SURE WE LIKE IT.

  6. Deb March 16, 2008 at 8:36 pm

    David, excellent point – the students should be involved in the process. I also think that if the school is going to label something as “nutritious” they should actually be offering a nutritious option. Clearly a philly cheese steak hot pocket is a far cry from nutritious! They’re only going to make you mistrust them, and with good reason.

    The truth is that a lot of students are concerned with their health and with the ethics of what they eat. There is no reason for schools to do anything other than encourage that. And, as you pointed out, if the students like what they eat, they’re more likely to spend the money on it, and that will mean an increased profit, which is what we know it always comes down to in the end.

    I think the DC school system was a great example of this – the schools improved the quality of the food, and the amount they sold went up tenfold (or close to it) in an extremely short period of time.

    Talk to your school, David, and see what kind of change you can influence. You never know if you don’t try!

  7. victoria whaley July 23, 2009 at 6:34 pm

    We on the leadership team of my high school are searching to improve the quality of food provided to our students. Does any one know of vendors in the DC area who are approved by the national school lunch program requirements? Although many of our students are meat eaters, we offer vegetarian & meat options.

  8. Deb July 23, 2009 at 7:02 pm

    I don’t know of any vendors, but you might want to see if PCRM can help you, or can point you towards someone who can help you. They have a “healthy school lunch” campaign, and they appear to be willing to help students who are working on it. Here’s a link to their site with some contact info:

    Hope that helps, and good luck! I think it is great that you’re working on this.

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