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House to Get New Culinary Experience?

Although the fiscal 2008 legislative branch appropriations bill is chock full of funds designed to improve personnel and security matters on Capitol Hill, there are a few items included in the measure that could bring some fresh faces — and tastes — to the Congressional campus.

The bill assigns House Chief Administrative Officer Dan Beard to study ways to increase the availability of free-trade-certified coffee on Capitol Hill, while also looking at how culinary school students could help revamp the menu and assist in the preparation of food in the House Members’ Dining Room.

“The Committee believes that opportunities exist for culinary school students nationwide to enhance their skills by giving them the opportunity, as part of their regular curriculum, to define the menu and assist with the preparation of the selections,” the report for the bill reads.

In the study, Beard is tasked with contacting culinary schools and looking at how students might be able to participate, on a rotational basis, in such an on-the-job training program.

The idea emerged during a March Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the legislative branch bill, when Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) asked Beard if such a program was feasible.

At the time, Beard called it “an excellent suggestion.”

Wasserman Schultz could not be reached for comment Friday.

Bringing students to Capitol Hill isn’t anything new — there are hundreds of unpaid interns who can attest to that. But it is unclear how a program involving such a highly specialized field would work, said Jeff Ventura, a spokesman for the CAO’s office.

What responsibilities would the students have? How long would their stay on Capitol Hill last? How much power would they have in changing the menus?

“We’re not even that far along in our thought process,” Ventura said. “Right now, the idea’s on the table, and it’s time to figure out whether or not there’s feasibility to do it.”

Feasibility to expand fair-trade coffee options might be a bit easier, as two House locations already offer it on their menus.

Capitol Carryout, located in the building’s basement, and a coffee vendor in the Longworth House Office Building sell fair-trade coffee alongside other caffeinated beverages.

But purchases of the free-trade joe significantly lag behind other coffee counterparts, according to sales reports. At the Capitol location, non-free-trade coffee outsells the free-trade variety 2 to 1; at the Longworth location, that gap jumps to 10 to 1.

“It’s not necessarily moving quickly as a product,” Ventura said. “That is certainly not to say we are opposed to expanding that program.”

The effort to bring fair-trade coffee began in 2001, when then-Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) led an effort to bring the product to the chamber, and supporters argue that it is one way Americans can help reduce poverty in the developing world.

Agriculture workers often toil in “sweatshops in the fields,” producing coffee that sells for less than the costs of production, according to the human rights group Global Exchange. Importers of fair-trade coffee, however, meet stringent international criteria and pay a minimum price of $1.26 per pound, providing credit to farmers and technician assistance to help transition to organic farming.

“Fair Trade for coffee farmers means community development, health, education, and environmental stewardship,” according to a Global Exchange release.

There are a number of other studies the CAO’s office is currently undertaking, most notably developing a long-term plan to green the Capitol complex. That study is expected to be presented to the public next week.

Beard also is assigned in the bill to study how best to improve disability access on Capitol Hill, increase public access to roll-call information, expand the hours of the House Fitness Center and pay House employees more often than once a month.

It is unclear which Members pushed for the various initiatives, Ventura said, but he added that the CAO would look to undertake whatever Members think is important.

“They are improvements that Members want looked into,” Ventura said. “And that’s what we do. We’re always willing.”

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