WASHINGTON — Californians are the new diet police in Washington, using their enhanced influence to launch makeovers of the cafeterias and restaurants that serve the nation's most powerful lawmakers and their staffers on Capitol Hill.
Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco struck first, greening up the House cafeterias by bringing in more organic and locally grown food and biodegradable cutlery.
Now Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein is leading the charge to privatize the Senate's cafeterias, confident it will lead to healthier food choices and lower costs for the public.
The Senate voted to privatize its cafeterias earlier this month after Feinstein warned that the restaurants would require a transfer of more than $250,000 from the Senate's emergency funds in July to meet its payroll.
Democratic Rep. Doris Matsui of Sacramento said she first noticed changes earlier this year when the fried chicken disappeared from the menu: "We said, 'Where's our fried chicken?'" (It came back.)
And Lauren Smith, Matsui's press aide, said she knew change was in the wind when her biodegradable spoon "morphed" into something quite different when she put it in a hot drink.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy, a Bakersfield Republican who serves on the House Administration Committee that oversees the cafeteria operations, says he hasn't witnessed an improvement in the food. But he said the push for privatization is a good one.
"We should live the way the rest of America lives," he said. "Why should we be subsidizing our food places?"
Certainly it's not unprecedented for members of Congress to pay close attention to what's going on in their cafeterias. Perhaps most famously, House Republicans in 2003 decided to temporarily change the "French" in French fries and French toast to "freedom" as a rebuke to France for its opposition to the invasion of Iraq.
While the House cafeterias were privatized years ago, the Senate was slow to follow suit. That changed when the financial situation became especially dire.
Feinstein, who heads the Senate Rules Committee that's in charge of the Senate restaurants, said taxpayers have been forced to provide more than $18 million in subsidies for the Senate cafeterias since 1993. That's the last time they had a profitable or break-even year. Feinstein said the yearly losses have averaged more than $900,000 and that the restaurants have operated at a loss in 37 of the last 44 years. The facilities include an exclusive restaurant for members and an affiliated group of cafeterias and coffee shops open to staffers and the visiting public.
In a letter to her colleagues, Feinstein warned that if the Senate cafeterias were not immediately privatized, prices would rise by 25 percent to offset the losses.
"I strongly believe that continuing with the status quo is unnecessarily costly," she wrote.
Feinstein prevailed after overcoming opposition from a handful of senators, including Democrats Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Robert Menendez of New Jersey, who feared that cafeteria workers would suffer if the facilities were run by a private vendor.
Under a compromise approved by the Senate, the 96 workers employed by the restaurants have the option of keeping their jobs under a private vendor or accepting a $25,000 buyout. Feinstein said that about half of the employees are expected to take the buyout.
Under Feinstein's plan, the Senate cafeterias will be run by New York City-based Restaurant Associates, the same company that has been livening things up in the House cafeterias this year.
In the Members Dining Room, there are new specials made with local ingredients and a three-course, state-themed prix fixe or a la carte menu, along with new U.S.-made china, silver and glassware.
There's new paint and lighting. At the Longworth Food Court, there's a new salad bar, two new soup stations, a made-to-order omelet station and an "international table" featuring food from other countries and cultures. At the Rayburn Cafeteria, there's a new buy-by-the-ounce breakfast bar, new melted sandwiches and daily specials featuring stir fry, pasta, taqueria, Cesar salad and "sustainable" seafood. At the Rayburn Deli, there are new tables and chairs and new offerings such as "Mediterranean Flatbreads" and pressed sandwiches.
"We didn't get rid of fast-food classics, like chicken fingers, French fries and pizza," said Jeff Ventura, spokesman for the House Office of the Chief Administrative Officer." However, we did eliminate all trans fats and, in the case of the chicken fingers, hormones."
Democratic Rep. Lois Capps of Santa Barbara said she's "thrilled" with the changes.
"Not only does the food taste better and is much healthier, but the food and its packaging is more environmentally sound," she said. "... I think it's important that Congress lead by example as we all do our part to eat healthier and be more environmentally responsible."
During a late lunch last week, as she munched on a colorful Cobb salad in the Members Dining Room after casting some votes, Matsui joked that it's only appropriate that Californians are leading the way in improving the cafeterias on Capitol Hill. After all, she said, the most powerful House member is from California.
"We've got to have some kind of power, having the speaker," Matsui said. "That's evidence of our influence."
Better eating on Capitol Hill
After surveys showed that diners were not happy with their food choices, a few things changed in the House cafeterias this year:
Here's a sample of Thursday's menu at the Longworth Cafeteria, the largest eatery in the U.S. House of Representatives:
Soups: House bean with ham, tomato basil, green split pea, beef barley, lentil, carrot, chowder, chili
Main courses: Grilled jerk pork chops, roast beef with mushroom gravy, roasted turkey breast, beef stroganoff, glazed rockfish, chicken, roasted tilapia, herb roasted pork, chicken parmesan, pasta Bolognese
Side dishes: Jasmine rice, rice pilaf, mashed potatoes, buttered noodles, roasted corn, sauteed spinach, honey glazed carrots, steamed asparagus, sausage and fennel
Grill specials: Footlong hot dog, fish and chips, Cajun fried fish sandwich, "Fit" specialty sandwich, cumin crusted chicken breast, wheat pita, roast pear, semolina, dark bread, Alpine lace, rhubarb chutney, Za'atar roast
Source: Office of the Chief Administrative Officer, U.S. House of Representatives