Saturday, July 3, 2010

Boston and the Impossible Math of Outsourcing School Food Services

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Boston has found itself in almost exactly the same place the District of Columbia was in two years ago: running big deficits in school food services and trying to erase them by privatizing school meals.

According to a report published by Boston's public radio station, WBUR, most Boston schools have been using the same company D.C. used--Preferred Meal Systems--to supply kids with re-heated factory meals much like airline food. Officials want to upgrade the food, but are saddled with $3.6 million in annual deficits, meaning school lunch--bad as it may be--is draining money from the general budget.

Thinking a large professional food service company was the only solution to the deficit issue, Boston schools put out a request for proposals (RFP) to take over the catered meal service. But closing the $3.6 million budget gap proved to be an insurmountable hurdle. Only one company replied to the RFP--Sodexo. Parents and a number of Boston's elected officials howled at the idea of processed Sodexo food in Boston cafeterias. So the schools pulled the plug on the bidding process.

Said schools Chief Operating Officer Michael Goar: “When we say that we want someone to take all the risk of $3.6 million, and also say to them, ‘By the way, you cannot touch any of our employees, oh, oh, by the way, we want you to provide more fruits and vegetables, and the last thing, we want you to partner with our local small firms in the city of Boston,’ it became a challenge in terms of finding the degree of competition that we wanted.”

Goar says he has whittled the deficit projection for the coming year down to $2.5 million and would re-open the bidding. But others, such as Boston City Council President Mike Ross, believe the schools should simply replace Preferred Meal Systems, which ships its factory meals from Philadelphia, with a local company, City Fresh Food. "They [City Fresh] don’t freeze their food, they flash freeze, so it’s just long enough to get to the school," Ross says.

Except that 40 percent of Boston schools prepare food in their own kitchen's. What would happen to them?

D.C. was in very much the same position when Michelle Rhee took over as public schools chancellor and announced she was privatizing school meals here by hiring Chartwells, a huge food service company like Sodexo. Until that time, D.C. schools had been purchasing meals from Preferred Meal Systems, made in a factory in suburban Maryland and trucked to individual schools to be reheated.

At the time, D.C. schools were running a $10 million annual deficit in food services, a number that has never been adequately explained and makes Boston's troubles seem downright trivial. The D.C. school system's contract with Charwells called for it to take over meal service in 122 schools and reduce the deficit to something closer to $5 million over time in exchange for a $1 million administrative fee plus fees on every meal served totaling an additional $1 million or more.

Last fall, Chartwells switched from Preferred Meals to something it calls "fresh cooked," meaning meals made predominantly from frozen, industrially processed convenience foods requiring minimal skill and time to prepare. Note to Boston: this is what you get from a big food service company when you spend pennies per meal.

Rhee and her designated chief operating officer, Anthony Tata, used the same deficit rationale as Boston to justify hiring a for-profit company to run school food services, but threw in a philosophical sop for good measure: making food, they said, was not a "core competency" of schools. (Meaning schools can drive and maintain a fleet of buses, fix plumbing, heating, and air conditioning systems, landscape acres of property, manage hundreds of employees, write contracts and deal with labor unions, and teach children, but can't cook.)

Now D.C. has a new food services director who finds himself in the same awkward spot as Boston City Council President Ross: looking for alternative contractors who can make first-rate food on a beggar's budget.

Anyone have a magic wand they want to loan?

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