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USDA practicing what it preaches

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 company runs cafeterias at the Department of Energy, Eisenhower Executive Office Building, and 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 — tasked with, among other things, improving 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.

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That is just the most obvious change at revamped USDA cafeterias, which debut Monday. The agency — one of the chief architects of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which counsels the public to reduce 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 100 percent whole wheat breads and pastas unless employees specifically ask for white-bread slices. 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.

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 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. ‘‘Because you can’t just give them a different option that’s healthy and tell them to buy it and eat it.’’

The 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, the General Services Administration, which contracts with 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 USDA requirements, while easy to write down, can present challenges to those outside bureaucratic offices. They can cause headaches for chefs. They can cause concerns for food service executives who wonder if federal workers will just wander off to other eateries.

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.

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