Thursday, April 21, 2011

Corporate Food Interests Censor Talk of Rebates in School Meals

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

Giant food service companies apparently will do whatever it takes to squelch information about the impact of rebates on meals served to children in the nation's schools.

At a recent conference hosted by the American Association of School Administrators, representatives of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) who had paid $5,000 to participate in the conference at Denver's convention center were forced to leave after being told that the information they were handing out on industry rebating practices "slandered" at least one of the other participants, which included food service giants Aramark, Chartwells and Sodexo.

Jordan Ash, an SEIU worker from St. Paul, Minn., was manning the union's booth in the conference's exhibition area Feb. 17 alongside Pizza Hut and numerous other vendors when he said he was approached by one of the event's organizers, Kay Dillon.

AASA represents thousands of the nation's school superintendents and principals, billing itself as "committed to creating the conditions necessary for all students to become successful, lifelong learners." The education conference is an annual event, which this year focused on issues bearing on education reform, including "federal funding for education, budgeting in the new economy and the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act," according to the group's website.

Ash said a lengthy discussion with Dillon ensued about some of the literature Ash was handing out, aided by a Denver-based SEIU cohort. The materials included a Bloomberg News report describing last year's settlement between the New York attorney general's office and Sodexo, in which the food service behemoth agreed to pay $20 million to resolve claims it had withheld food manufacturer rebates--or discounts--that should have been credited to its school district clients.

That settlement has reverberated through school food circles--Sodexo, Aramark and Chartwells serve meals to millions of school children nationwide every day. The deputy attorney general in New York handling the state's investigation recently told a gathering of the School Nutrition Association, representing some 53,000 cafeteria workers, that rebates create "an inherent conflict of interest" in the choice of foods served to children, as they favor highly processed convenience foods marketed by giant manufacturers such as Tyson and Kellogg.

Ash said Dillon was vague about the precise reason he was being ejected from the conference, except that his materials were offensive. "We actually went through with her which materials were acceptable. Basically, any materials that mentioned any company by name were not acceptable," Ash said. "We asked if we could talk about the [New York] settlement without naming names, and she said no, because everybody knows who the company was."

At its website, the AASA lists Aramark as a "visionary"--or top tier--corporate sponsor of the conference, along with textbook publishers Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and McGraw-Hill Education. Chartwells is listed as a "supporter," along with Blackboard Inc. and the SEIU group that was ejected, Campaign for Quality Services. Sodexo lists the schools administrators group as one of its "strategic partners."

Campaign for Quality Services says it aims to organize workers, parents and community leaders of various stripes to improve the quality of government services, including school food and custodial services. Sodexo and the Service Employees International Union have been at odds for years over labor practices. Sodexo recently filed suit against the SEIU alleging illegal organizing tactics. The union maintains a website called "Clean Up Sodexo," which calls the Sodexo suit a corporate attempt to silence union voices.

Nonetheless, Ash said he reminded Dillon that the SEIU had been welcomed at prior AASA events, including the group's conference last year in Phoenix. "She said a lot has happened in the last year."

Dillon did not return several telephone messages and an e-mail seeking her side of the story.

In addition to tossing Ash and his SEIU coworker from the exhibition area, Dillon also cancelled a workshop that had been scheduled and paid for by the union group featuring school food consultant Barry Sackin. Sackin, who until 2005 was a chief policy advisor and Capitol Hill lobbyist for the School Nutrition Association, was scheduled to talk to school administrators about ways to better manage their food service contracts, and how to avoid traps involved in food manufacturer rebates. A video of the presentation he was planning to give, along with an account of the Denver incident, was posted online by Campaign for Quality Services.

Ash said he had paid the AASA for use of an e-mail list to notify some 1,300 school administrators about Sackin's workshop and was expecting robust attendance. Sackin said he was five minutes from walking out of his California home to catch a plane to Denver when he got a call from Ash saying the workshop had been cancelled.

"I do a lot of presentations on a variety of topics, a lot of it in the policy arena," said Sackin. But this was the first time any of his talks had been created such a stir.

"You have nothing to fear in presenting facts. It sort of seems contrary to our national beliefs that you should inhibit open discussion on issues of importance," said Sackin. "The whole point of it is, here’s what the law says and here’s what’s been found through audit [in New York], and here are things you should look at as business managers and consider to get the value of what you contracted for."

Sackin said school administrators need to learn these lessons because they are vastly overmatched by giant food service companies when it comes to negotiating contracts. Jeffrey Mills, the food services director for D.C. Public Schools, is said to be highly dissatisfied with his district's contract with Chartwells for a variety of reasons, including rebates and certain promises to reduce the district's deficit spending on meals that he says turned out to be fairly weak promises after all.

The Denver AASA conference is not the only venue where the mention of school food rebates has raised corporate hackles. In March, John F. Carroll, the deputy New York attorney general conducting the rebate investigation, spoke before more than 800 members of the School Nutrition Association attending the group's legislative conference. In the audience were representatives of Sodexo, Aramark and Chartwells--all corporate sponsors of the SNA--as Carroll described at length how he believes rebates have corrupted school food where management companies are involved.

The SNA posted a video of Carroll's speech on YouTube. But it didn't last long. Some weeks later it was removed from the YouTube site. I was able to obtain a copy, and restored the video to my blog post here, and at the Better D.C. School Food blog.

SNA spokeswoman Diane Pratt-Heavner said in an e-mail: "The video was taken down after several LAC [Legislative Action Conference] attendees expressed concerns about the speech." When asked to elaborate, Pratt-Heavner replied: " We don't have a list of the individuals or their specific concerns."

She later added: "John Carroll spoke at a School Nutrition Association Legislative Action conference for 45 minutes at the Association's invitation. As you know, SNA made the video available on YouTube for several weeks, allowing reporters and writers like yourself to access the speech, and that coverage of his speech is still available online. That said, SNA is a membership organization, and when our members contact us with concerns about our resources and materials, we respond accordingly."

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