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Testimony of Benjamin Feldman – DCPS Food and Nutrition Service Program – September 30, 2015

September 30, 2015

Testimony of Benjamin Feldman, DC Resident and DCPS Parent

Members of the education committee:

Thank you calling this important hearing on food and nutrition services and for the opportunity to testify before the committee.

I am the parent of an elementary school student in a DCPS school. My son does not eat the food served in his school, I would like this to change but there’s work to be done before that will happen.

The bulk of my testimony addresses the need for fundamental change in the way DCPS/PCS views the role of food and nutrition in the education system. Once we put food into proper perspective, the procurement priorities become much clearer, and quite different, from historic practices.

Food and nutrition services needn’t be a DCPS core competency. But the approach to, and delivery of, food services needs to reflect the centrality of food, and the food experience, to educational readiness and student well-being. If DCPS isn’t going to “own it” the vendor the District selects should understand and commit to providing services that meet these lofty aspirations.

I would like to discuss three issues:

1) Food has transformative potential, but not just any food served any way. We need to think about real food, made from scratch and served by familiar faces.

2) Models for food and nutrition services that can harness the potential of real food; local sourcing, heritage recipes, fresh ingredients, passionate people creates visible social and emotional investment in children.

3) Value and values we should demand from vendors.

A. Food is essential. It’s much more than fuel; it is what binds us together as families and communities. We break bread together, we think of grandma’s house at celebration times, kitchen smells, family sounds. Food memories are permanent and definitional, sweet potato pie, roast turkey, greens, we can be transported through taste and food experience.

We all know food done right is a very powerful thing and can have transformative impact on our youth. Part of it is nutrition value, and DC has done well with the Healthy Schools Act. But, as a majority minority and high poverty school district where children face tremendous challenges, we need to tap into a much broader set of benefits that food done right can provide.

We need to provide our students with visible, tangible and authentic symbols of our investment and care for them. We need to walk the talk, and one of the best ways to show this investment is committing to providing, fresh, scratch-made delicious food served by people who are proud of what they are making and who they are serving.

It’s not that complicated; delicious scratch-made food is an act of love, and this city’s kids need to know they are loved. This is what it means to feed someone in the fullest sense. If we can give this to our students it will really change how they feel, not just being full, and well fed, but also well cared for. A lot of our kids really need this. The experience will also foster a love of good food, and food habits that last a lifetime.

B. What would great food service look like? Alas, we know it can’t be grandma’s kitchen. But, Students should know that the food is good, the people making and serving it care about food and want the kids to like it and want it to nourish them in a complete sense.

It’s a question of both food origins and a service ethic. In terms of food sourcing, the provider needs to be committed and connected to the local food shed, sourcing locally, taking advantage of seasonal varieties and sustaining the local economy.

Menu creation must be based on the pursuit of excellence in flavor, freshness and nutrition. We should also encourage vendors to incorporate heritage foods that resonate with our diverse communities and restore food connections that have frayed, particularly for families residing in food desserts.

Attitude is also tremendously important. Kids have amazing radar when it comes to detecting sincerity and BS. Fake food served with a fake smile won’t cut it, no matter how hard “big food” and Madison Ave. try to package it. We need our kids’ food to be served by enthusiastic employees who know where the food came from, had a hand in preparing it and are proud of what they are serving. And, attitude comes from the top. The vendor’s core mission has to be about investing in kids through food and nutrition, not simply maximizing revenue and profits.

C. What to look for in a vendor. We know what didn’t work; corporate, big food provider Chartwells/Compass bilked the District for tens of millions of dollars while failing to provide our kids with quality food. While Chartwells stipulates that its settlement with the District is not an admission of wrongdoing, forking over $18 million is certainly an indication something wasn’t kosher. And, in truth it’s not really about Chartwells. All the big vendors are the same, they are focused on “Big Food” and “Big Ag” and using the factory food model to serve meals. It’s the same factory food model that has given us an unhealthy population where individuals suffer malnutrition, diabetes and morbid obesity at the same time. This is the wrong model and it will lead to the wrong results.

So, what’s the alternative? I don’t know who it is but I know what they should look like. Our vendor should be local, connected to our regional food shed by relationships with actual producers and familiarity with on-farm practices. It should be a food-centric business, about making and serving great food within our food shed, it should be values-driven and transparent. We need a vendor with true open book policy that allows the District to understand all its costs and expenses—particularly if we are going to use a cost-reimbursable model.

Finally, the vendor should be community focused and accountable. By community focused, I mean that return to community, rather than merely shareholders, is an integral part of the business model. We need a company that is swimming against the tide of factory food, and looking to restore the connections between food and people. It’s a really different model and shouldn’t involve SYSCO trucks or frozen pizza.

And, because it is such a different model, we need to reach out beyond the typical players and find a real partner. This should mean very different bid evaluation criteria when the city puts the contract out to bid.

This may mean taking risks because the District should hire a company that isn’t in the school lunch business—so it can re-imagine what the dining experience should be, rather than replicate a failed model. There are plenty of risk management tools that can be used to ensure vendor performance, even for new entrants, and the City is more than capable of doing so. It’s a much better use of taxpayer resources than hiring another “Big Food” vendor that doesn’t share our values or invest in our community.

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