Monday, December 17, 2007 (SF Chronicle)
Pelosi leads the House to go organic in its cafeterias
Carolyn Lochhead, Chronicle Washington Bureau
(12-17) 04:00 PST Washington --
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi may have left her progressive instincts
at the barn door when she drove a starch-, sugar- and fat-bloated bill that
all but left out organic farmers through the House last summer, but when it
comes to food for Congress, it's out with high-fructose corn syrup and
in with uncaged hens and hormone-free milk.
Under Pelosi's signature "Green the Capitol" initiative, the House
cafeterias will get a full-blown makeover Monday to the very latest in
organic and locally grown cuisine under a new contract with Restaurant
Associates, caterer to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Kennedy
Center for the Performing Arts.
The vast House food service operation that feeds the belly of the
beast -more than 2.5 million meals a year for members, staff, tourists,
lobbyists, lawyers, journalists and other highly regarded species that
inhabit the Capitol - is switching to locally grown, organic, seasonal
and generally healthy food. It will be served in compostable sugar cane and
corn starch containers instead of petroleum-based plastics. Even the
knives and forks will be biodegradable.
The Senate, the last place in America to abandon elevator operators
and smoking in the hallways, is sticking to its fried okra and Styrofoam.
Danny Weiss, chief of staff to Martinez Democrat George Miller, has
been working in the House for roughly 20 years and eats at his desk nearly
every day. He said it's about time.
"When I first got here, you could get greasy food anywhere you
wanted," Weiss said. "You could have a grilled cheese sandwich and the Senate
bean soup, and that would last you for a couple of days."
As it happens, fellow San Franciscan and Democrat Dianne Feinstein,
as chair of the Rules Committee, oversees the Senate food service. It
remains entirely owned and operated by the Senate. That's because the upper
chamber demurred from the privatization frenzy that gripped the House
when Republicans seized control a dozen years ago, only to be replaced by
Green Team Pelosi in November 2006.
Feinstein wanted the Senate to join the new food service contract,
but the rest of the Democratic caucus vetoed the idea. "I'm for doing it,"
Feinstein said, after noting that like many trapped in the Capitol's
culinary desert, she finds herself eating a lot of food she shouldn't
"The Senate doesn't want to do it."
Feinstein's chief concern is that the Senate food service is running
a $1.2 million deficit, while the House operation, even before its
organic makeover, operates in the black. But other Democrats, sources said,
wanted nothing to do with contracting out of any kind, however healthy, even
if the Senate could keep all its current employees.
A big part of the problem, many believe, is that the 20-year-old
Senate menus are unappetizing and therefore don't sell, although efforts are
under way to improve things. Nearly everyone marvels at the fact that
sushi has cracked the barrier and taken its place alongside traditional
fried-chicken "tenders," those nicely processed bite-sized bits of
soggy antibiotic-laden poultry long a staple of late-night filibusters.
Natalie Ravitz, communications director for Sen. Barbara Boxer,
D-Calif., said her svelte figure is deceptive. "It's the glow of stress," Ravitz
Few seem to mourn the end of the distinctly Southern-style cuisine
of mashed potatoes and buttered beans that still lingers in the House's
"I appreciate that, being a Southern boy," said Louisianan Christian
Bourge, House leadership reporter for Congress Daily, a Capitol Hill
publication. "But that kind of stuff will clog up your heart pretty
Working on the Hill often resembles living on the Hill, where the
frantic pace and long hours leave one at the mercy of breakfast, lunch and
dinner in the Capitol cafeterias. Few restaurants are nearby, and the most
popular one recently had at least one cockroach running along the
counter just as the hamburger melt and fries were being served.
Bourge, whose two deadlines a day seldom allow him to venture
outside,said he sometimes is left feeding on scrapple, which he describes as a
local version of Spam, concocted somewhere in Maryland from
unidentifiable meat parts and then fried.
A spokeswoman for Restaurant Associates said some House favorites
will continue to uphold the Southern tradition, such as Miss Janie's Fried
Chicken in the Members' Dining Room, and the House bean soup, known in
the Senate as the Senate bean soup.
"No, it's the House bean soup," corrected Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St.
Thompson, who grows organic olives and sauvignon blanc grapes in
Lake County, welcomes the changes, though he said he seldom finds time to
eat anything. He has eaten the hot dogs for sale in the House cloakroom,
and the occasional peanut butter and jelly sandwich. And of course, in
meetings with the speaker, there is the ever-present Ghirardelli
Aides confirmed a big increase in chocolate consumption since Pelosi
assumed the speakership.
Under the new food contract, seafood will be chosen under the
guidelines established by the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch Program, which
divides fish species into the categories "best," "good alternatives"
and "avoid," depending on whether fish stocks are depleted or farmed in
environmentally irresponsible ways.
It's all part of the new trend toward local and organic foods that
began in the Bay Area and has now entered the institutional catering
"We had what we termed a crisis of flavor on the plate," said Maisie
Greenawalt, spokeswoman for Restaurant Associates sister company Bon
Appetit. The problem, she said, is that conventional food often tastes
bad because it is grown for its ability to travel long distances and endure
for vast stretches of time and still maintain the appearance of
That plus the widespread use of antibiotics and hormones in livestock
and sodium and corn-based starches and sugars in industrial foods, and it's
a wonder everyone's not dead.
As any C-SPAN viewer knows, the obesity epidemic has struck with a
vengeance in the Capitol. And with Senate passage of the farm bill last
week, Congress has ensured that the United States will retain its
status as Junk Food Nation for five more years. But the House now has its
Perry Plumart, deputy director of the Green the Capitol project, and
a former aide to Pelosi and East Bay Rep. Pete Stark, is overseeing the
changes. Plumart is known as a meat and potatoes man, but has embraced
the new ethos with gusto.
"It is shocking that the future of our diets has been turned over to
him," Weiss said of Plumart's new role. "But he is an environmentalist at
Plumart did not deny that he likes meat and potatoes, but insists
that even for his own home, he buys "free-range hogs from a farmer out by
Bull Run. I buy half a hog from him, and it feeds in his organic vegetable
garden." Asked if potatoes are a vegetable, Plumart replied, "They're a
tuber. And I eat salad. With plenty of dressing."
-- Salad bars with canned and conventional vegetables, iceberg
processed ranch dressing
-- Conventional beef hamburgers with processed cheese, often served
-- A special fried food bar
-- Soggy vegetables drowning in butter
-- Barbecue with corn and coleslaw
-- Custards, pies and cakes with fake whipped cream toppings
-- French fries (known under Republican rule as "freedom fries")
-- Plastic and Styrofoam containers NEW MENU
-- Composed salad tossed to order with choice of seasonal vegetables
proteins with house-made vinaigrette over a warm grilled Focaccia bread
-- Roasted chicken with fire-roasted tomatoes and goat cheese
-- Cedar-plank wild salmon with apple cilantro relish
-- Seared barramundi (fish), white beans and tomatoes with thyme
-- Smoked salmon, roasted beets and arugula
-- Steamed broccoli, Brussels sprouts, sage roasted butternut
-- Samplings from Indian, Chinese, Greek, Moroccan and Mexican
-- Locally made Gifford's Ice Cream from a 70-year-old Washington
institution OTHER ITEMS
-- Fair Trade coffee
-- Sustainable seafood
-- Local and organic food choices
-- Zero trans-fat cooking
-- Cage-free shell eggs
-- Compostable disposables - Carolyn Lochhead