Two days ago, I wrote a post here on The Spork Report entitled, “Is Aramark Good For Houston ISD School Food?” which discussed a recent op-ed in the New York Times criticizing the privatization of school food through the hiring of food service management companies (FSMCs) like Aramark, Sodexo and Chartwells. FSMCs, according to the Times piece, are financially motivated (sometimes involving illegal “rebates”) to use food processors like Tyson and ConAgra to turn free federal commodity food, like whole chicken parts, flour and potatoes, into far less nutritious chicken nuggets, frozen pizza and French fries. The op-ed also cited a 2008 University of Michigan study which cast doubt on the commonly held belief that FSMCs are cost efficient and save school districts money.
Interestingly enough, yesterday the Texas Watchdog site reported that our own FSMC, Aramark, may be on the ropes here in Houston ISD:
Senior Houston schools officials are considering terminating the district’s agreement with Aramark after they say the Philadelphia-based food-services company incurred a loss of $1.9 million in district taxpayer money – a contract violation.
According to Texas Watchdog, the shortfall was incurred during the 2011 fiscal year, despite the fact that Aramark had previously told HISD that it could expect a $1.1 million surplus. Efforts to negotiate a settlement with Aramark have reached an impasse and, according to the report, HISD spokesperson Jason Spencer has said that the district is reconsidering ending the Aramark contract when it is up for rebidding next year.
What all this means for the future of school food in our district remains to be seen. If the school board chooses not to renew Aramark’s contract but continues to favor the idea of privatizing Food Services, we’ll simply watch as another FSMC like Chartwells (which has in the past unsuccessfully bid on the HISD contract) steps into Aramark’s shoes. And while Chartwells has been praised in some districts for school food improvements (e.g., recently working with outside entities in Chicago Public Schools to make a landmark purchase of antibiotic-free, whole chicken parts), DC public school food blogger Ed Bruske published last spring a damning critique of Chartwells’ performance in his own district (“DC Schools Food Director Calls Chartwells Contract ‘Crap’”). The ever-present concern with any FSMC, of course, is the degree to which the company’s profit motive leads to more cheap, highly processed foods and more popular but nutritionally questionable “a la carte” foods appearing on lunch trays, to the detriment of student health and learning.
So if Aramark is indeed on its way out, it’s my fervent hope that our superintendent and our school board officials will proceed carefully before making any decisions about the future of Food Services in HISD.
Let’s first find out what a self-operated department would look like and cost. Let’s find out the financial impact of really diversifying and improving our menus in a meaningful way –particularly at the high school and middle school levels. Let’s examine whether we could follow the lead of forward-thinking districts like San Francisco USD by getting rid of our “a la carte” lines entirely, so that all kids can get a balanced meal (instead of grabbing nachos and a slushie and calling it lunch) and no Houston kid gets his picture put on Facebook to shame him for eating in the “poor kids” line.
Because while piecemeal improvements are being made in our district — salad bars at three pilot schools, new dining concepts in some high schools (on which I’ll be reporting soon) and improvements to our elementary menus — I do feel we have a long way to go. Just last week, I saw first hand many students taking a monochromatic lunch that looked like this:
With a beverage that looked like this:
How do these photos square with our district’s own school food mission statement?
Our Nutrition Mission: “Houston ISD will be a leader in child nutrition and wellness by providing the highest level of nutrition possible on our campuses, by providing comprehensive nutrition and wellness education, and by engaging the entire HISD community to teach our children the benefits of making healthy choices.”
We owe it to our district’s children — one third of whom are already on the path toward a life shortened by heart disease and diabetes — to try harder.
The looming question is whether our district is willing to invest the money that may be required to take its own mission statement from platitude to reality.