September 3, 2009
The Child Nutrition Act is up for reauthorization this fall, which means Congress will be debating whether it can afford to provide kids with food that benefits their health. This is a worthwhile time to examine the lunch that Congress eats everyday.
In March 2007, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi began a “Green the Capitol” initiative, aiming not only to transform the nation’s legislative buildings into more environmentally friendly landmarks but also to overhaul the House of Representatives’ cafeterias. Her efforts have led to the House cafeterias making the switch to more organic, local, and healthy offerings at lunch time. Typical fare on offer includes salad bars, stir fry, taqueria, paninis, sushi, and in the restaurants, more gourmet items, such as roast beef with mushrooms and glazed rockfish. These dishes have not replaced old favorites like pizza, fries, or chicken fingers, but even the classics have been revamped so as not to include trans fats, and the entire menu is geared towards being fresh, local, and sustainable.
Similar efforts were made in the Senate in 2008 by Senator Dianne Feinstein, who was in charge of the committee that oversaw the funds that paid for the Senate cafeterias. Unlike the Senate eateries, which were, until recently, government-run, the House cafeterias have been privatized since the 1980s. Restaurant Associates of New York is the current House contractor and has been so efficient in catering to hungry House staffers that it has been able to turn an annual profit since 2003, with the most recent figure cited being $1.2 million. These profits are directed as commission to the House. For those who worry that taxpayers are footing the bill for these “elite foods,” Perry Plumart, deputy director of the House’s environmental effort, has been quoted as saying, “The cafeterias are not subsidized…In fact, we make money and Restaurant Associates makes money.”
This stands in stark contrast to the Senate cafeterias, which until recently ran with an annual deficit and were indeed subsidized by taxpayers. From 1993 to 2008, the Senate cafeterias received more than $18 million dollars in subsidies. Many blamed the poor revenue figures on bad food and on competition with special events that served food from outside caterers. Senator Feinstein herself noted that the food and service were “noticeably subpar.” Even though Senate staffers had to walk for twenty minutes to reach the House cafeterias, many were happy to make the trek for substantially better food. One article stated, “House staffers almost never cross the Capitol to eat in the Senate cafeterias,” showcasing the divide between the lunchrooms.
Last year, however, the Senate decided to pass somewhat contentious legislation that would privatize the Senate lunchrooms. It was slightly controversial because a few Senators opposed the changes based on the argument that privatization would squeeze the cafeteria’s labor force, stripping them of their government benefits and subjecting them to lower pay. Fortunately, the legislation that passed in June 2008 stipulates guarantees that Senate cafeteria workers be paid the same salary and retain their benefits. Restaurant Associates of New York – the contractor that caters to the House cafeteria – now caters to the Senate as well.
Still, the House cafeteria is ahead in the game. Admirable though it was to provide healthier alternatives to what was traditionally served in the cafeterias, many House eaters complained about the rising prices that followed the initial switch. As a result, the House cafeteria announced in June that it would offer a permanent House Value Meal for just $5. A typical meal is Grilled Cheese and Tomato Soup with a 16oz fountain drink or 8oz milk.
In addition, the House cafeteria features another innovation: farmers markets’ on Wednesdays. Restaurant Associates began the program in May, which brings a few local farmers and their produce to the Longworth Cafeteria for staffers to buy. Since the program is pretty new, only a few farmers make the trek to Washington DC to sell their produce. But Restaurant Associates is working on attracting more farmers: the cafeteria offers to buy whatever the farmers don’t sell so that the trip is worth it for them and so that food doesn’t go to waste. It’s a really great initiative that customers of the cafeteria enjoy directly or indirectly and is in keeping with the spirit of the cafeterias to provide healthy and fresh food.
A few other recent changes of note are that the House and Senate cafeterias have banned the use of Styrofoam and plastic in all food service disposable items, and that all new disposables are compostable. Restaurant Associates has also begun initiatives to purchase more food from local farmers, to buy sustainable seafood, to eliminate trans-fats, to provide fair trade coffee and rBGH-free milk and generally to promote healthy food choices.
All of this means that thanks to the work of Speaker Pelosi and Senator Boxer, the food on Capitol Hill is precisely the kind of food that our kids should be eating at school everyday. Sadly, it’s not: right now, school cafeterias are so underfunded that they can’t afford to serve anything but the fast food and junk food that puts our kids at risk for obesity and diabetes. There’s no excuse for federal policy that hurts our kids. This fall, let’s tell our representatives to put their money where their mouths are.
Originally posted on Slow Food blog
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