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DCCK’s Healthy School Food program: A year in review

This week marks the end of another school year at DC Public Schools. It also marks the end of DC Central Kitchen’s seventh year preparing healthy, scratch-cooked, and locally-sourced food for DC Public Schools.

As the school year ends, we’re proud to report on the incredible work of our dedicated team of chefs, dieticians, and cooks who together provide the healthy, carefully prepared food and hands-on nutrition education our city’s children need to thrive in school and in life.

Our program has its roots in local farms. We worked directly with more than 35 area farmers and growers to ensure that local ingredients made up more than 50% of each lunch tray we served. Our meals were prepared and served with dignity by our devoted culinary team, more than 30 of whom are graduates of our acclaimed Culinary Job Training program, and all of whom earned living wages and full benefits as DC Central Kitchen employees.

In addition to the nearly 1.3 million school meals that our team served to low-income DC schoolchildren this year, our Healthy School Food team held 53 nutrition education lessons that empowered students to make healthier choices and try new foods.

Our new classroom-based, kid-friendly nutrition education and cooking initiative, Cafeteria Chefs, was widely successful, holding 30 sessions across schools located primarily in Ward 7.  And this year, we expanded the curriculum of our mobile urban garden, the Truck Farm, to include follow-up visits with students who previously participated in a Cafeteria Chefs lesson. Truck Farm lessons give kids a hands-on understanding of how fruits and vegetables grow, and include food tastings of five or six items growing in the Truck Farm including fruits, vegetables, and herbs. Then, students demonstrate their chef skills by preparing a salad using ingredients from the Truck Farm.

While we know that student satisfaction is key to serving healthy school meals kids actually enjoy, our Healthy School Food team also works to engage parents in the discussion around school food as well.   Our staff held two School Food Advisory Council meetings where topics ranged from how school PTAs can get involved in the conversation around healthy eating, to gathering feedback on specific menu items and future offerings. In the community, our team also worked closely with the DC Farm to School Network, DC Food Policy Council, Playworks, and Rooting DC to facilitate important conversations about school nutrition, school gardens, healthy physical activity, and sustainable food policy in District.

All of these activities were supplemented with additional District-wide nutrition education and student engagement events, such as Strawberries & Salad Greens Day, held each June where students learn about the nutritional benefits of local greens and strawberries, as well as Food Day in October. International Food Days, which are held throughout the school year in partnership with embassies located in DC, introduce students to new foods alongside the cultures and customs of featured countries.

Whether it’s a conversation about local vegetables grown by one of our farm-to-school partners for our students, an International Food Day exploring South African cuisine, a Fresh Feature Friday taste test to expose students to new vegetables and preparation methods, or a hands-on Cafeteria Chefs lesson where children learn how to prepare meals themselves, our Healthy School Food team redefined what ‘school food’ can mean to our city’s children, schools, environment, and economy.

And just because school is out for most students doesn’t mean our team takes a break. Each day this summer we’ll serve anywhere from 1200 to 2800 summer school meals, over 1,110 meals as part of the District’s Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) ensuring that low-income children continue to receive nutritious meals when school is not in session, plus our existing 5,000 meals to nonprofit partners across the city and the tens of thousands of healthy, affordable snacks and produce items we’ll deliver to corner stores through our Healthy Corners program.

We’re honored to serve our city’s students and look forward to another great year ahead!