Why Public Servants Need Good Food

The USDA cafeteria offerings are unhealthy and unsustainable. Federal employees deserve better.


Photo by Son of Groucho/Flickr CC

If we create something by believing in it passionately, as a philosopher once said, then reforming the food system might start with changing the options that federal employees have for lunch. How can we expect USDA employees to passionately defend needed changes if their imaginations about food options are stuck in the 1970s?

Washington, D.C. is famous for its contrasts--partisan politics, affluence and poverty--but who knew that food choices were on the same list? Last week, when I visited the White House garden and the USDA cafeteria on the same day, I saw firsthand the present and the potential of our food system, separated by only a few blocks, but virtually by about 40 years.

The Friday farmer's market and the First Lady's well-publicized garden--all 1,100 square feet of it, with a thriving bee house, plants germinated from Thomas Jefferson's Monticello garden, and leadership from Mrs. Obama--represent the potential. According to the First Family's chef, Sam Kass, the White House garden has produced 700 pounds of food in six months and educated thousands of young school children who come to visit and work.

Most college students wouldn't put up with this. Why should public servants?

A few blocks away is the people's garden at the USDA headquarters. Agriculture Secretary Vilsack employed a jackhammer and two department landscape architects to replace what had been only cement and grass months ago. They planted produce in raised beds and put in cover crops to enrich the soil in the ground. They erected a bat house to produce guano to fertilize the plantings organically. Free public seminars are offered there on a weekly basis and almost 200 gardens have been developed at USDA offices around the country as a result of this first effort.

Representing present conditions is the food dished out to employees in Federal cafeterias. Forgive me if this description of what I observed takes you uncomfortably back a few decades:

• A station that defines global food as pasta that is prepared in a pan with your choice of bits of meats and sauces without flavor. The pasta is pre-cooked and piled in an open vat whose capacity rivals my refrigerator's.
    • A salad bar with cottage cheese, black olive slices, and pineapple chunks in syrup. Despite the map of local farms on a nearby wall, most everything here came out of a can or was previously frozen and thawed.
    • A comfort food station where you can use an ice cream scoop to serve yourself barbequed meat hiding in various brown sauces, any number of starches, and soggy collards--one of the very few green options but they're so overcrooked as not to be really green in color anymore.

The 2009 variation in this throwback cafeteria is an incentive for bringing a reusable tumbler: get any size beverage container up to 32 ounces refilled for the price of 24 ounces. Under what health and wellness scenario can one justify discounting the price of 56 ounces of soda on a given day? Most college students wouldn't put up with this. Why should public servants? They deserve better than this, especially if we need them to see the connections among fresh and healthy food, well-raised food and healthy ecosystems, their personal health and great-tasting produce.

To the credit of the senior members of the administration leading the President Obama's wellness initiatives, improving federal cafeterias is actually on the table. Representing Bon Appetit Management Company, I was one of seven people invited to Washington last week to discuss 'best practices' for providing food service.

Fundamentally, our group tried to impart three ideas: focus on food (fresh and cooked from scratch whenever possible); focus on people (making chefs and servers accountable for the food they offer); and use the federal cafeterias as teaching tools just as the White House and people's garden are. Tens of thousands of public servants eat in these cafeterias daily, many of whom help set food and land use policies for the nation. Surely they need their imaginations stoked as well as having their caloric intake satisfied (or over-satisfied, in the case of beverages).

How about serving meat that is grown without antibiotics? Or more vegetables, cooked with healthy oils and a minimum of salt? Because a high percentage of the foods being served that day was highly processed or from cans, much of it contained corn syrup and therefore packed more calories than was obvious. Switching in cans that contain no syrup might not constitute a best practice, but it would be a good start.

To some, feeding federal employees better may seem trivial compared to the big goals such as eliminating subsidies for the wrong cropping systems. To others, myself included, feeding the creative imaginations of the people we depend on to work on these big goals is a necessary prerequisite and a worthwhile effort.