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USDA Gets Taste Of Own Medicine

Washington — Ken Choi, chief operating officer for I.L. Creations in Rockville, Md., has a good idea of what federal workers like to eat. The food service company runs cafeterias at the Department of Energy, the Eisenhower Executive Office Building and the State Department, and while I.L. Creations has been touted for its healthful offerings, Choi knows that some of his most popular Western items include foods dipped in a hot-oil bath: fried chicken, fried catfish and french fries.

Which explains why I.L. Creations’ newest government contract presents such a challenge. The Agriculture Department — the agency tasked with, among other things, improving the public health — made a groundbreaking decision last year when soliciting bids for cafeteria vendors at its headquarters: The USDA would go fryer-less. As in not a single deep-fat fryer in the department’s cafeterias, which serve more than 40,000 people a month, including members of the public.

And that’s just the most obvious change at the revamped USDA cafeterias, which debut tomorrow.

The agency — one of the chief architects of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which counsels citizens to reduce their red meat and salt intakes — has fully embraced its own recommendations (possibly this time without alienating lawmakers from livestock states who were furious last year over the USDA’s suggestion that employees avoid meat one day a week).

The new USDA cafeterias will automatically serve diners 100 percent whole-wheat breads and pastas unless employees specifically ask for white-bread slices or some other option.

One station in the main cafeteria in the South Building will prepare food that conforms to the low-sodium, low-fat, low-cholesterol and low-calorie requirements of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans; the station will also display a daily MyPlate example to model the basics of a proper meal — not that anyone will be required to follow it .

There will even be a full-time dietitian on site to answer employee questions, which Choi believes is key in this transition to a fryer-less world. After all, USDA workers can easily sidestep the whole healthful-eating program; they could, for example, just take a short trip down Independence Avenue to the Department of Energy cafeteria, where the deep fryers are still bubbling.

“I think it’s really vital that we have education,” said Choi of I.L. Creations. “Because you can’t just give them a different option that’s healthy and tell them to buy it and eat it.”

The federal government had already been moving in a more healthful direction with its cafeterias, part of the Obama Administration’s mission to shrink the American waistline.

About three years ago, as part of a plan to improve the nutrition and sustainability of the food served to government workers, the General Services Administration, which contracts vendors at 32 federal cafeterias in this region, banned trans fats and limited deep-fried entrees “to no more than one choice per day.”

The GSA also started requiring vendors to reduce sodium levels across the board: 230 milligrams or less for vegetable dishes and 480 milligrams or less for 40 percent of the remaining dishes on the menu. (The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day for those without hypertension or other health issues.) What’s more, the GSA mandates that 25 percent of a vendor’s product line be organic, local or sustainably grown.

The USDA’s cafeterias, which are not contracted by the GSA, nonetheless relied heavily on the agency’s contracting requirements. But the USDA also placed extra burdens on its new food service provider, such as the 100 percent whole-wheat standard and the total ban on deep fryers. The Agriculture Department even pushed for more locally grown foods; officials wanted 30 percent of the ingredients sold in their cafeterias to come from farms within 200 miles of USDA headquarters.

“Like many employers, USDA is taking important steps to improve our cafeteria to enhance the quality and healthfulness of food available for our employees to purchase,” said Gregory Parham, departmental management assistant secretary.

The more healthful USDA requirements, while easy to write down in an official document, can present challenges to those outside the confines of bureaucratic offices. They can cause headaches for food service chefs trying to re-engineer deep-fried dishes for the oven.

They can cause concerns for food service executives who wonder if federal workers will just wander off to other eateries that offer fattier foods. And they even raise an eyebrow with time-strapped USDA workers who are, essentially, stranded in a downtown food desert, with few other lunchtime options.

Over at the Library of Congress kitchen, where I.L. Creations is the contractor, chef Chris Rabang was practicing his technique for baking Chinese dumplings in a TurboChef, a ventless high-heat commercial oven. Rabang, a veteran of I.L. Creations’ kitchens, has been tapped to be executive chef at the USDA cafeterias.

He said he enjoys challenges, which is good, because the lack of fryers presents a particular challenge for Rabang and Jimmy Quach, the corporate Asian chef for I.L. Creations, who will also be based at the USDA.

The Rockville company is known for its Asian-fusion dishes, whether vegetable dumplings or General Tso’s chicken, which typically require a deep fryer. The food service company puts a positive spin on its new fryer-less predicament. Chefs and executives alike emphasize that they been down this road before. They’ve had to learn how to prepare Chinese food, for example, without high-heat, gas-powered woks, which are not available in federal cafeterias.

Still, learning to mimic a wok with commercial kitchen equipment is one thing.

Trying to imitate the crispy texture and full, fatty flavors of a deep fryer are another. Rabang’s dumplings from the TurboChef are Exhibit A: While nicely browned on the exterior, they have a dry, almost cardboard-like texture. Rabang expects his sauces will help mask any deficiencies.

The USDA contract has also forced the chefs to be more conscious about their use of oil, butter and salt. Both chefs have taken to writing out precise recipes, in coordination with on-site USDA dietitian Amanda Barnes. She has more than once told the chefs they needed to rejigger their recipes to meet USDA’s nutritional standards. “They’re not always happy with me,” Barnes said about Rabang and Quach.

It’s still not clear whether USDA employees will be happy with the changes at their cafeterias, either. Last week, a quartet of USDA workers were outside the Whitten Building smoking, yet another unhealthy habit that has been banished from the workplace. They spoke favorably of I.L. Creations’ food over at the Energy Department and, generally, they approved of the move toward healthful eating.

“I like it,” said Heather Krause, who works for Catherine Woteki, undersecretary for research, education and economics. “But then, like I said, sometimes you want something that’s not so healthy.”

The USDA said it will offer those options, too, just likely not at the agency’s official cafeterias. To bite into hot golden fries and other deep-fried delights, USDA employees will have to venture to the South Building’s sub-basement, where there is a greasy spoon named Valencia Cafe. Although Valencia will start to roll out some “healthy sandwiches” to keep pace with its competition upstairs, the cafe also plans to keep its well-oiled options, including chicken wings, cheese sticks, french fries and onion rings.

A few USDA employees expect Valencia’s business to jump with the debut of the revamped cafeterias. Which is what concerns Ken Choi of I.L. Creations.

He already knows how well fried chicken and the Asian-fusion dishes sell at the Energy Department, even among USDA employees. Those USDA workers may continue to walk over to Energy for their deep-fried fix, but what about during inclement weather, when employees won’t feel like wandering outside? Valencia might look enticing.

“On a rainy day,” Choi said, “we can’t compete with a deep fryer.”