Critical thinking

When it comes to food, everyone's a critic to some extent.

When it comes to food, it seems, everyone’s a critic, and media types are no exception. Earlier this week, The Washington Post ran a story entitled, “Well, fed: We try the food at U.S. Government cafeterias.” Reporters were dispatched to foodservice facilities at seven federal government offices and asked to rate the quality of food and service.

The cafeterias rated included those at the State Department, Pentagon, Department of Agriculture and the U.S. House of Representatives. In addition to printing its own reviews, the Post asked readers to weigh in on what they thought of the food in their government office buildings.

The results were, for the most part, not flattering. Only the House cafeteria, a food court, received an A, while no other facility rated better than a C. As of a day after the original article was published, only five readers had voiced their opinions, but those comments were not very kind, either.

The impetus for the Post’s article was the Obama Administration’s push for Americans to eat more healthfully, and the subsequent rewriting of specs by the General Services Administration to mandate healthier choices in those cafeterias overseen by the GSA. The Post wanted to see whether the new specs were being followed in the six GSA locations where new foodservice contracts recently went into effect.

I was curious to read the Post’s article because I hope to visit with the GSA sometimes next month and tour a few facilities. But I have always had a problem with cafeteria reviews done by the consumer media. Newspaper and magazine editors and writers handle these reviews the same way they do restaurant reviews, even though the two market segments are markedly different. Restaurants are operated to make a profit, while most employee cafeterias are operated as a service. The profit margin for a cafeteria run by a contract company is in the area of 3%. Menu prices are not as flexible as they are in a commercial restaurant, and menus often must be more varied to reflect a more diverse clientele.

I’m not trying to rationalize poor quality in any noncommercial cafeteria. But most consumer media reporters approach these types of stories with the view that improving quality is a simple matter of buying better ingredients. Seldom have I seen a newspaper or magazine writer do an in-depth interview with a foodservice director about the challenges of operating foodservice in a government office, school district, hospital or other noncommercial venue.

These writers are often like the art gallery visitor who says, “I may not know art but I know what I like.” I just think readers deserve a little context. Otherwise, you’re not being fair to those operators who do the best they can with limited budgets and even less freedom.

More From FoodService Director

Ideas and Innovation
reusable coffee cup thermos

We were inspired by a book titled “Influence” to start a sustainable cup program called My Cup. All 15,000 new students receive a reusable cup with their name on it, which they can use at the dining halls. Personalizing helps them invest in the program and actually use it.

Menu Development
ranch dressing chicken fingers

While salad bars are often the first place K-12 operators look to incorporate more fresh produce, few go as far as making their own salad dressings. But last fall, in a continuing effort to transition from prepackaged meals to an all-scratch menu, Mark Augustine, executive chef of culinary and nutrition services for Minneapolis Public Schools, switched to concocting four varieties in-house—ranch, Caesar, Italian and Asian vinaigrette. The move, designed to eliminate artificial ingredients and lower fat and sodium, presented the biggest challenge when it came to ranch dressing, the school-...

Ideas and Innovation
phone bed call sick

We make people call and directly talk to their boss or supervisor if they are reporting an absence for a shift. While it is more cumbersome, it is a conscious decision. We have adapted and implemented electronic methods to obtain efficiencies in just about every other functional area, except for electronic absence reporting systems. The direct supervisor can put more pressure on an employee to show up—especially those with some form of the “Super Bowl plague”—than any electronic system can.

Ideas and Innovation
tug hospital robot

Automation has opened up in recent years as foodservice operators across the country grapple with labor shortages. Robots deliver food trays to patients in hospitals, and they make sushi on college campuses. For some operators, they’re worthwhile to reduce strain on human employees and increase productivity.

Robots roamed the hallways when the University of California San Francisco Medical Center’s new Mission Bay campus opened last year. Though these robots have nicknames like Wall-E and Tuggie McFresh, they’re not a novelty. They’re a solution to a problem that administrators...

FSD Resources