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Kitchen Cabinet Sits Down for Lunch

Christie Vilsack eats with Alexandria students. (Alice Welch -- U.S. Department of Agriculture)

It was pizza day at Weyanoke Elementary in Alexandria. But most of the first-graders in the lunchroom seemed far more interested in getting autographs than downing their slice with the cheese-stuffed whole-grain crust.

This is because it was also VIP day. Joining them at the long tables were Karen Duncan, the wife of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan; Christie Vilsack, wife of Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack; USDA Undersecretary for Food and Nutrition Janey Thornton, and White House assistant chef Sam Kass.

The visitors graciously signed the children's paper napkins. But the government officials were interested in the food. The visit was a fact-finding mission for the Department of Education and Department of Agriculture staffers as Congress readies to reauthorize child nutrition programs, including school lunch, later this year. Kass sampled the yogurt "biteable," served with grapes, kiwi, melon and crackers. Vilsack had the chef's salad. (Your trusty reporter had the potato-crusted fish fillet sandwich and gives it an emphatic thumb's-up.)

"I didn't eat school lunch five times in 25 years of teaching," said Vilsack. (Though to be fair, Vilsack did live across the street and went home most days for lunch.) "I didn't have this kind of an option."

Chef Sam Kass signs autographs. (Nicholas Stylianoudis -- Fairfax County Public Schools)

Before the meal, Penny McConnell, the nutrition services director for Fairfax County Public Schools, briefed the group on how the food is cooked (no fryers), the accommodations she makes for children with allergies (not always easy, given that gluten-free bread can cost 70 cents per slice) and, most important, the challenges of providing school lunch at the federal reimbursement rate of $2.67.

The discussion was both broad and technical. McConnell said it was essential for the federal government to set standards for foods sold outside the lunch line so that students don't skip a healthful meal for a bag of chips and a soda. Barbara Belmont, executive director of the School Nutrition Association, argued that the government needed to establish a federal, professional standard for school lunch administrators: "When you listen to Penny, you see the scope and complexity of the programs is so broad and so deep. It's an investment."

McConnell and Belmont also explained why it is so hard for administrators to keep costs down. For one, the money that Congress appropriates for child nutrition programs is often used for things unrelated to the nutrition program; in some schools, the school lunch program pays for all trash removal, not just the waste from the cafeteria.

School food service also can bear the total cost of collecting income data, which indicates whether a student is eligible for a free or reduced-price meal, even though the school uses the information for many things including free student parking, band uniforms, instruments and AP courses.

The visit is the first of several multi-agency events that will take place this month. Next week is National School Lunch week. On the schedule for the Secretary of Education and his wife is a meeting with Revolution Foods at D.C. Prep Public Charter School and a cooking demonstration at the Walker Jones Educational Campus. Kass, Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan and chef-restaurateur Jose Andres also will attend.

-- Jane Black

By Jane Black  |  October 9, 2009; 5:00 PM ET
Categories:  Food Politics  | Tags: Jane Black, nutrition, school lunch  
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