Critical thinking

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

By Paul King, Editorial Director

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.