Union bites

What does the National Education Association eat? Every serious school reformer wants to know. And so, as official Washington took its usual late-August snooze, we recruited some friends and investigated. (Sorry, Mike Antonucci, we did not wear trench coats.)

Yes, the NEA Caf?? is open to all, though whether to bulk up the revenue stream or to comply with some heretofore unknown government regulation barring exclusive restaurants isn't known. Union members receive a discount, but anyone can stroll into the hulking headquarters building at 16th and M for breakfast or lunch (Monday through Thursday only during summer months). Prices are reasonable for downtown D.C.

The ambiance in the spacious, well-lit atrium at the center of the building is clean and bright, the tables are well-spaced, the chairs are comfortable enough, and the ficus trees sport cute little light bulbs. A large mobile with an education theme complements the environment; unfortunately, it shares space with a massive "TEAM NEA" poster that looms over the atrium and is less conducive to good eating. So are atrium-facing office windows dotted with anti-Arnold and other political placards.

The restaurant is, at heart, a cafeteria catering to diverse tastes, with the virtues and vices of that genre. On the one hand, there are lots of choices. (If the NEA ran its restaurant by its education policy precepts, everyone would be served the same food - and told where to sit.) On the other hand, much of what's on offer is mediocre.

The food-service section, though cramped and confusing, is organized into stations: a salad bar, "Grill Works," the "special of the day" (often fried but with "South Beach" alternatives), the deli-sandwich counter, etc. Staffers are reasonably efficient and helpful; we watched one who wasn't busy come over unbidden to assist a co-worker whose station was mobbed.

As for the food, my made-to-order chicken-and-havarti sandwich was generous and tasty enough, though entombed in a plastic clamshell before being handed to me. (That can't be good for the environment.) The salad bar is ample and varied, and its shrimp and fruit salads were fine. But most of its offerings are standard, some of them require physical contortions to reach, the Caesar salad's romaine was fading, and there's no excuse for unripe tomatoes in August.

The salmon with green beans drew mixed reviews from our crowd. A taco-salad eater found the shell "not crispy enough, but otherwise good."

Some dishes were yummy but unhealthy, precisely the sorts of thing the NEA doesn't want to see served in schools. Lots of sweets and sodas on all sides, including convenient little packets of candies and nuts for afternoon snacking. A friend who opted for the "Grill Works" line - where he found a menu displaying "every dietary no-no" - ordered a "chicken finger sandwich." No, not a bun full of claws. Rather, he was served "a New Orleans Po' Boy, piled high with [deep fried] chicken tenders, cheese, barbeque sauce, and lettuce and tomato.... And it was delicious." It came with Texas steak fries ("not the shoestring McDonald's variety"). So why not also have some tiramisu? "I consider myself something of a tiramisu snob, but even I was wowed by this one.....Total bill out the door: $8.25, not including the cost of angioplasty."

Healthy choices were available, though, for those seeking them: the aforementioned salad bar, juice, "vitamin water," and fruit (though our test banana was badly bruised).

Other offerings were truly blah. My split-pea soup was as bad as any I've had, tasteless and so starch-thickened that it formed a gluey skin as soon as it was taken off the heat source. A "Jamaican meat patty," perhaps the most exotic item on the menu, was spicy enough, but its shell was dry and tough, its filling (which tasted more like beef than chicken) pureed like baby food. The pepperoni pizza was a heat-lamp victim, soft and soggy. (Said its eater: "It might warrant a score of basic but certainly not proficient.") The chicken with cornbread stuffing (a "daily special") was, reported its taster, "very dry. Perhaps I should have opted for the scary school-cafeteria-looking gravy, but I didn't want to take a chance."

Policy wonks take note: NEA Caf??'s operation is outsourced to a private, for-profit vendor, Seasons Culinary Services - precisely what the union abhors in public education. This firm's philosophy is worth sharing, both because it's a fine one for a food service outfit and because it reads like the gustatory equivalent of a charter school. You can find the whole thing on the company's website. Here's part of it:

"Seasons Culinary Services, Inc. was formed as a reaction to the ever growing demand for increased personal attention and culinary flare in the food service industry.... Our culinary trends, customer driven programs and innovative ideas can be enacted more immediately because there are no large corporate barriers. While large food service companies have many programs and resources to offer, we feel that Seasons will continue to earn its reputation on our personal commitment to service and quality. Our focus is our customer and our company goals are regional, not national or global....We aim to rid our accounts of the old stereotypes of corporate cafeterias and food lines by implementing creative menus, home made food, colorful presentation, and healthy alternatives in a simple and clean atmosphere."

As with charter schools, the NEA Caf??'s reach sometimes exceeds its grasp, but at least it's trying. An earnest sign over the deli counter, for example, declares the eatery's desire, evidently in response to customer requests,  to give "soup and half-sandwich" consumers more options. It then details in confusing language several combos involving beverages, chips, and suchlike. The description called to mind a school system struggling to depict its magnet programs. It certainly is "in need of improvement."

On balance, the NEA runs a restaurant that embraces capitalism, freedom, customer service, diversity, and choice. Its execution is flawed, but it's steering by the right stars. Why can't it do the same for schools, for teachers, and for kids?

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