In January 2010, when Ed Bruske asked to spend time observing the kitchen operation at his daughter’s elementary school, H.D. Cooke Elementary School in the District of Columbia, he thought he was going to see people cook. The food service provider for D.C. Public Schools, Chartwell-Thompson, had recently ditched the old method of feeding kids with pre-packaged meals from a food factory and replaced it with something they called “fresh cooked.” Bruske, being “one of those folks who’s trying to return to cooking from scratch with fresh, local ingredients,” as he puts it, was anxious to see how this plan would unfold.
He was in for quite a surprise — as were the school officials who let this former reporter for the Washington Post behind the swinging cafeteria kitchen doors. As he chronicled in the “Cafeteria Confidential: D.C.” series for Grist, he soon discovered there wasn’t much “fresh” about the food being served at H.D. Cooke. It came straight out of the maws of the industrial food system, in which highly processed ingredients are doused with all sorts of additives and preservatives in distant factories, then cooked and shipped frozen so that it can be quickly reheated with minimal skill and placed on a steam table. Why, he asked, was so much processed, canned, and sugar-injected food being fed to our children on a daily basis? Why aren’t more parents outraged that pizza and Pop-Tarts and candied cereals are being served so routinely alongside Mountain Dew masquerading as milk? And how on earth was this happening here in the nation’s capitol, right outside Michelle Obama’s door, under the name of “fresh cooked”?
The answers to these questions, Bruske wrote in the D.C. series conclusion, lie in the history of the National School Lunch Program, its relationship with the USDA, misguided government nutrition requirements, and the rise of fast food in America. With so many factors conspiring against it, it’s no wonder true “fresh cooked” food almost never finds it way onto school cafeteria trays.