Agriculture’s cafeteria serves healthy meals alongside traditional fare

Agency makes nutritional information available and encourages employees to make smarter choices.

Editor's Note: This story is the first in an occasional series on food offered at federal agencies in the Washington area. As a result of the Obama administration's emphasis on federal employees' well-being, Government Executive staff will sample the cuisine in agency cafeterias and cover the government's continued efforts to provide its workforce with healthy choices. Please send any feedback or suggestions to

Cafeterias conjure up memories of plastic trays and soggy french fries. Mass-produced and often high in calories, the food doesn't always lend itself to a healthy and well-balanced diet.

The Obama administration's emphasis on healthy living piggybacks on efforts at some agencies to offer more well-balanced meals in their cafeterias and provide employees and visitors with more nutritional information when weighing their options. The Agriculture Department, for example, is trying to make good food accessible through an employee wellness program and visible information on the nutritional value of the offerings at its South Building cafeteria.

The department encourages employees to make smarter eating choices with Your Health Your Way, a wellness program designed by Sodexo Inc., the facility's caterer. These menu options, denoted by a heart symbol, meet certain nutritional guidelines set by Sodexo's dietary staff. The meals have fewer than 600 calories -- only 35 percent of which come from fat -- less than 800 milligrams of sodium and 100 milligrams of cholesterol, and at least 3 grams of fiber. Healthy menu snacks have less than 200 calories and fewer than 360 milligrams of sodium. All are trans-fat free.

All YHYW items are labeled with nutritional information. Diners interested in the calorie or fat content of other foods can consult Sodexo's nutrition guidebook next to the cafeteria's grill station. "Dare to Compare" signs throughout the cafeteria point out the differences between full- and low-fat snacks and condiments. The department also hosts a winter farmers market in the cafeteria on Wednesdays from December to March 2010.

During a recent trip to the cafeteria, roasted vegetables and goat cheese on a multigrain roll ($5.99) was one of three YHYW choices at the sandwich bar. Weighing in at just 340 calories and 6 grams of fat, the sandwich was one of the freshest and heartiest-looking options available at the food stations. The sandwich would have been better served hot, and it was pricier than a Subway $5 Footlong, but the contents were both substantial and healthy.

The carrot coriander soup ($2.29 per cup) would make a filling and inexpensive meal if accompanied by fruit and toast. Thick chunks of carrot and onion substituted for cream, which trimmed down the recipe to 130 calories, 4 grams of fat and 440 milligrams of sodium.

But taste can suffer in the face of nutrition, and some of USDA's fare is not spared that misfortune. The grilled tuna, served with avocado salsa, cabbage slaw and toasted orzo, was a disappointing entree. At $6.99 and 390 calories, 5.5 fat grams and 280 milligrams of sodium, the meal might have been a winner, but the tuna was overcooked and chewy, the orzo bland and rubbery, and the slaw soaked with too much vinegar.

USDA's cafeteria features a salad bar priced at $6.26 per pound. Creamy dressings, potato salads and cheesy pastas are available, but diners also can choose from traditional green salad fixings, roasted chicken and steamed vegetables.

There are plenty of artery-clogging options as well. The grill station dishes up onion rings, french fries, pizza and hamburgers, while an entrée bar offers fried chicken, collard greens, and macaroni and cheese. Dessert lovers can choose from pumpkin pie, chocolate cake and an array of bulk candy ($0.41 per ounce). Einstein Bros. Bagels runs a deli counter, and familiar brands such as Starbucks, Coca-Cola and Pepsi are available.

The South Building cafeteria serves breakfast from 6:30 to 10:00 a.m. and lunch from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Escorts are not required for visitors. Between meals, employees can grab to-go sandwiches, salads, snacks and drinks. Click here for weekly dining specials.