D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) has introduced landmark “Healthy Schools” legislation that integrates nutrition standards, locally produced foods, school gardening, broader access to subsidized meals and increased physical exercise to address obesity and other children’s health issues in the nation’s capitol. I recently submitted questions to Cheh about her bill, resulting in this interview by e-mail. The questions were submitted before I reported a six-part account of the food being served in D.C. schools.
Q. What prompted you to write the “Healthy Schools” legislation now pending in the D.C. Council?
A. There is a lot going on right now to reform the District of the Columbia’s public school system. And that reform is moving on several different fronts: central administration, teacher performance, special education, and facilities modernization. As a strong supporter of that reform, I wanted to ensure that we seize this opportunity to include students’ health as a priority in the reform effort. While children are in the care of the school system, it is our responsibility to teach and encourage healthy living habits.
Q. This bill takes on a number of complex issues, such as childhood nutrition, sustainable agriculture, environmental quality, the role of physical activity in good health. What was your approach to crafting legislation that addresses these many different complicated subject areas in the city’s schools?
A. When crafting this bill, as with many reform bills, I thought it would be best to consult the experts. That is why I worked with the American Heart Association to address obesity, the Allergy and Asthma Network Mothers of America on asthma, the D.C. Farm to School Network on providing local fruits and vegetables to students, and many other organizations. The bill is comprehensive but it needs to be if we are seriously committed to improving student health.
Q. Your bill calls for incorporating recycling, composting, “green” architecture and local produce in the school routine. Some might wonder why D.C. schools need to concern themselves with global questions such as sustainability and where our food comes from. How do you respond?
A. Although sustainability is a global question, it is also a local one. We can’t ignore the negative impacts that health and environmental factors have on the quality and effectiveness of education. The research is quite clear: healthy students learn better and live longer.
Q. D.C. Schools operate the largest feeding program in the nation’s capitol. How well are they doing in terms of providing healthful meals to the city’s youth and what kind of upgrades are you calling for?
A. I think that the investigation conducted by The Slow Cook into the food quality at DCPS is a good example of how we are doing. It could be worse, but we aren’t doing very well. My bill will see to it that students are eating fresh healthy food in school cafeterias throughout the District.
Q. The D.C. Public School System (DCPS) currently offers free breakfasts to all students. Your bill would extend this program to the city’s charter schools. Can you give us an idea how many additional breakfasts this might entail and how they would be paid for?
A. Charter schools serve lunch to about 24,000 students each day. We do not know how many of these students also receive breakfast. Increasing the number of students who eat breakfast is an important goal because studies have shown that students who eat breakfast learn better, have higher test scores, and are healthier overall. Like lunch, school breakfasts are reimbursed by the USDA.
Q. Your bill calls for offering breakfast in elementary school classrooms, and a number of other breakfast options, such as a second-chance breakfast, for older students through high school. What is this about?
A. Because many students arrive at school shortly before school begins, they are unable to eat breakfast in the school cafeteria before the first class period, which means that many poor students routinely do not eat breakfast. Experts say that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. By serving it in classrooms, more students will eat in the mornings. Several DCPS schools are already serving breakfast in the classroom now and teachers there have reported that it is a successful program and they like it because their students are more ready to learn.
Q. In about 70 percent of D.C. public schools, students who qualify for a “reduced price” — but not free — lunch because of their income level nevertheless have the usual co-payment of 20 cents waived. You would expand this program to all DCPS schools as well as charter schools. What is the reason for waiving the co-payment, and is this a cost the city can bare?
A. The 20-cent co-payment should be waived so that it is not a deterrent for any student that wants to eat lunch. Given the chronic health and education problems that have plagued the District, we can no longer afford not to provide meals for our students.
Q. “Healthy Schools” would require that students have a minimum 30 minutes to eat lunch. Why is this important, and are there schools where students currently do not have at least 30 minutes for lunch?
A. When given a healthy meal, students need sufficient time to consume it. If rushed, students will rely on candy and unhealthy snacks. In some schools, cafeteria lunch lines are so long that students barely have adequate time to buy and eat lunch. Therefore, requiring students to have 30 minutes for lunch would ensure that they have sufficient time to eat healthy.
Q. Your bill would codify policies adopted by the Board of Education to prohibit schools from selling sodas and to manage the portion sizes of what some people might call “junk” foods, such as chips, donuts, cookies, sold in vending machines or school stores. Why not just eliminate all vending machines and “junk” food from schools?
A. Vending machines are largely banned from DCPS already; this bill would extend these strict limitations to include Charter schools. Instead of banning vending machines outright, though, we want to create the opportunity that they could be used to dispense healthy foods and beverages.
Q. The regulations prohibit foods that contain more than 35 percent sugar by weight. Does that mean candy cannot be sold in D.C. schools?
A. We are still working to craft the most effective health guidelines for foods that can be served outside of school meals. However, most candy would be banned under these guidelines.
Q. Many jurisdictions are banning trans-fats. This bill calls for removing trans-fats from school foods over a four-year period. Why not ban them immediately?
A. My goal is for trans-fats to be entirely phased out from public schools as quickly as possible. However, I want to be sensitive to charter schools and ensure that these guidelines are not too onerous.
Q. You would place stricter limits on sodium, but allow more sodium in foods that contain other nutrients, such as fiber or vitamins. Why? Also, it appears that your sodium allowances are considerably more generous than what the USDA is now calling for in its commodity foods. Have you looked at that?
A. Sodium is a significant problem and our students consume far too much of it. The bill seeks to reduce sodium consumption. However, this portion of the bill is still under consideration and could likely change moving forward.
Q. Although this is not addressed in the “Healthy Schools” bill, there is a movement afoot in the country to remove chocolate and other flavored milks from schools because they contain only slightly less sugar than sodas. What are your thoughts on this?
A. This issue was raised at the first working group my office hosted on this bill and the consensus among education and nutritional experts is that low-fat flavored milk is not a major problem in D.C. public schools.
Q. Currently it is possible to walk into a public charter school and find a soda vending machine in the lobby. “Healthy Schools” would, for the first time, apply to charter schools the same nutritional and vending standards that are in force in the public school system, meaning charter schools would have to lose the sodas. The bill would also impose fines of $500 per day on schools that do not comply. Do you think this will require significant changes in the way charter schools operate, the revenues they generate from vending machines, and do you foresee some schools actually being fined?
A. It is my expectation and hope that no schools will be fined for non-compliance with the Healthy Schools Act. Furthermore, I have not found soda machines to be a significant source of income for District schools.
Q. The federal government has a program to provide fresh fruit and vegetables to needy schools, but apparently only 23 of the 88 eligible schools in the District participate. Is there something wrong with the way D.C. schools manage their food programs?
A. No. The USDA Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program provides limited amount of funds to the District. Unfortunately, there are more schools that are eligible for this excellent program than there are federal dollars to support it.
Q. Your bill would require D.C. public schools to serve local farm products whenever possible, with a preference toward foods grown or processed in Maryland and Virginia. Why are local foods important, and wouldn’t this drive up the cost of D.C. school meals?
A. Purchasing local foods is important because they tend to be fresher and have less impact on the environment. Furthermore, students are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables if they are fresh because they taste better. Experts have told us that local foods cost about the same as non-local produce grown in places such as California.
Q. How many lunch meals are served by DCPS and D.C. charter schools every day?
A. Our public schools serve about 70,000 lunch meals each day. [Councilmember Cheh asked: “How can this be when we do not have that many students.” DCPS enrolls about 45,000 students and the charters teach another 30,000, for a total of 75,000, and approximately 5,000 students eat lunches provided outside of the federal school lunch program.]
Q. “Healthy Schools” would provide schools with a 5-cent bonus for meals that include locally produced foods. How much would this 5-cent incentive cost?
A. This number will depend on the amount of schools that participate. However, our estimate is that it will it cost around $500,000 per year.
Q. Incorporating local foods into school meals raises some obvious questions, such as seasonality and whether our local agriculture can supply enough food to feed the District’s school children year-round. Do you foresee a day when most or all of the food served in the city’s schools comes from local sources?
A. The experts say that there is more than enough local food to serve our students everyday. Furthermore, local nonprofits have developed ways to bring in large amounts of fresh foods from local farms during the growing season. They then flash-freeze this produce, which maintains the nutritional value of the food. Flash-frozen food can then be easily stored and served all year long. This process is used now to serve local foods in thousands of local meals at homeless shelters. If we can serve healthy, local foods to the homeless, we can also serve them to our schoolchildren.
Q. “Healthy Schools” goes further than other farm-to-school programs around the country in that it also requires local farm products to be “sustainably” produced, meaning without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, without non-therapeutic antibiotics and hormones, and using agricultural techniques that conserve resources. Why is that, and is such a requirement feasible?
A. The current language in the bill would give a preference and a financial incentive to healthy foods that are grown locally and sustainably. In the bill, sustainably does not mean that the farms have to engage in organic farming or all of the techniques listed; the threshold is much lower. Farms would only have to engage in one technique to be considered sustainable. This, I believe, is feasible and would help encourage local farms to be environmentally friendly.
Q. You would also require vendors to identify the source of all produce used in school meals. Does that pose an unrealistic burden on vendors and distributors?
A. I don’t think so. Many grocery stores already tell you where the produce you buy at the supermarket comes from. Also, for food safety reasons, it is important that schools know the source of the foods they serve. If food from a particular location needs to be recalled, school administrators can remove it from the food supply more quickly.
Q. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, 18 percent of high school students in the District are obese and 35 percent are overweight. The “Healthy Schools” bill sets minimum physical activity levels in grades K through 8, but does not address high schoolers. Why is that?
A. The national standards recommended by the American Heart Association only address middle and elementary school students. Furthermore, High School students are required to participate in physical and health education to graduate. But, I remain open to new ways of improving student health in high schools.
Q. The recent trend has been for schools to cut back on physical education, sports, music and other activities in order to focus on core skills such as reading and math to meet “No Child Left Behind” requirements. Your bill moves in the opposite direction, requiring more PE. What do you say to those who think that devoting more time to physical education will hurt D.C. students in reading and math?
A. I fundamentally disagree that requiring physical education lowers academic achievement. In fact, the research suggests quite the opposite is true. Students who exercise every day behave and learn better.
Q. Your bill requires schools to recycle paper, bottles, cans and cardboard, including those from food services. Do you have any estimates on what this would cost? Further, the bill says recycling would only be required when funds are available. That could be interpreted as meaning it might never happen, don’t you think?
A. DCPS has a recycling pilot program that is working well overall. The Healthy Schools Act would extend recycling to all schools — including the charters. Staff in the Chancellor’s office have said that the costs of recycling could be very little, which would be easily offset by the environmental and educational benefits.
Regarding the language you cite (“when funds are available”), it is a technical legislative drafting practice that helps us guide how funds are allocated within the bill. It’s not something to worry about because I will make sure that my bill is funded.
Q. “Healthy Schools” envisions food waste for D.C. schools being composted. Why is that important, and how do you see that happening?
A. School cafeterias generate tons of food waste each week. Instead of going into landfills, this food waste can be composted and used sustainably. Composting is becoming increasingly common at many public and private institutions with significant success. This bill allows a four-year period for phasing out Styrofoam in D.C. school food service and phasing in more environmentally friendly products in lunchrooms. Why would this take four years?
I am very troubled by the enormous amount of waste that our school cafeterias create. For example, each day, tens of thousands of Styrofoam trays are thrown away. Yet, I understand that our schools lack the infrastructure to have fully sustainable cafeterias. Disposable trays are used because many school cafeterias lack the resources to clean and wash trays every day. Therefore, it will take some time to develop the infrastructure needed to achieve this goal.
Q. “Healthy Schools” calls on the Office of the State Superintendent of Education to develop a plan for expanding gardens in D.C. schools. Why are school gardens important and what is the likelihood they can be funded?
A. School gardens are important for many reasons. They teach children about nutrition, how to grow food, and how to eat healthy. Gardens also enable school children to learn about the environment. Moreover, gardening can be good exercise. Serving produce grown in school gardens in school meals can encourage children to eat more fruits and vegetables.
Q. Currently, school gardens exist because of the individual efforts of some teachers and parent volunteers, sometimes with little support from school administrations more focused on reading and math. Do you envision the school system embracing the idea of gardening and building gardens on a large scale?
A. My hope is that school administrators will embrace school gardens because of the educational value associated with gardening and teaching children to grow their own healthy, fresh foods.
Q. Your bill calls for a plan to develop “wellness centers” in all of the District’s comprehensive highs schools by 2015. What would be the function of these wellness centers, and would they not duplicate services the city already provides?
A. One-third of the children in the District live in poverty, and access to medical care is limited for many. Several DCPS high schools have had enormous success creating wellness centers, which offer students comprehensive medical services. There, doctors from Children’s National Medical Center and Georgetown’s medical school examine and treat students. Because this program has been so successful, I believe that the District should examine expanding this program to serve all of our high schools.
Q. Do you see any hot-button issues in this bill that are likely to generate controversy?
A. Requiring a specified amount of physical education may create some controversy. But as I said before, the research on this is very clear. In my mind, the real hot-button issue is the fact that so many children are on the road toward a life of obesity and all of the serious, associated health risks.
Q. If there is opposition to this bill, where do you suppose it will come from?
A. If there is major opposition to this bill, I will be surprised. I think most District leaders and residents share my concerns about student health. If there is opposition, I expect that it will come from large food companies that do not have ownership over local sustainable farms and are not invested in our community.
Q. Meals for D.C. Public Schools are currently provided by Chartwells, an institutional food company that is a subsidiary of the international food giant, Compass Group, and essentially runs school cafeterias and lunchrooms for DCPS. Has Chartwells or Compass Group had anything to say about the “Healthy Schools” legislation?
A. Chartwells provided a lot of helpful background information this fall, but has not commented on the bill, formally or informally.
Q. Can you estimate the total costs for the changes called for in the “Healthy Schools” legislation? And in a time of budget deficits, how likely do think it is these programs can be funded?
A. We are still examining the total costs of implementing this bill. However, improving the health of our children is vitally important and I will work hard to ensure that there is money in the budget to implement the Healthy Schools Act.
Q. How would you rate the chances of this bill being passed?
A. I expect that the Healthy Schools Act will pass this spring. With very high rates of obesity, juvenile diabetes, asthma, and other chronic conditions, we have a responsibility to take action to make our schools and schoolchildren healthier now. It can’t wait. I will do everything I can to ensure that my bill becomes law as soon as possible.