Updated: Aug 27
Carolyn Lochhead, Chronicle Washington Bureau
Dec. 17, 2007
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.
SPILL_HEARING Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi speaking at The Congressional Field Hearing on the Bay Oil Spill, held at the Golden Gate Club in the Presidio of San Francisco. These pictures were made on Monday, Nov. 19, 2007, in Pinole, CA. KATY RADDATZ/The Chronicle Photo taken on 11/19/07, in San Francisco, CA, USA Ran on: 12-09-2007 Nancy Pelosi thought the methods were in the plan- ning stage, a source famil- iar with her position said. MANDATORY CREDIT FOR PHOTOG AND SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE/NO SALES-MAGS OUT KATY RADDATZ
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 eat. "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 said.
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 Longworth cafeteria.
"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 fast."
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. Helena.
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 chocolate.
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 business.
"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 edibility. 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 chance to escape.
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 heart."
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."
Today's House specials
The House is getting a food service makeover as part of Speaker Nancy Pelosi's "Green the Capitol" Initiative (speaker.gov/newsroom/reports?id=0019). Out go the yucky, conventional, sweetened and fatty servings, and in come locally grown, grass-fed and organic Berkeley-style cuisines.
-- Salad bars with canned and conventional vegetables, iceberg lettuce and processed ranch dressing
-- Conventional beef hamburgers with processed cheese, often served cold
-- 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
-- Composed salad tossed to order with choice of seasonal vegetables and 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 squash, herb couscous
-- Samplings from Indian, Chinese, Greek, Moroccan and Mexican cuisines
-- Locally made Gifford's Ice Cream from a 70-year-old Washington institution
-- Fair Trade coffee
-- Sustainable seafood
-- Local and organic food choices
-- Zero trans-fat cooking
-- Cage-free shell eggs
-- Compostable disposables
Carolyn Lochhead was the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where she covered national politics and policy for 27 years. She grew up in Paso Robles (San Luis Obispo County) and graduated from UC Berkeley cum laude in rhetoric and economics. She has a masters of journalism degree from Columbia University. Twitter: @carolynlochhead