Yesterday’s New York Times Sunday Review section had a scathing critique of the growing privatization of school food through the hiring of food service management companies (FSMCs) such as Aramark, Sodexo and Chartwells.
Written by Lucy Komisar and entitled “How the Food Industry Eats Your Kid’s Lunch,” the piece points out FSMCs “cozy relationship” with major food manufacturers like Tyson, ConAgra and Pilgrim’s, in which districts pay these companies substantial fees to turn whole commodity foods provided free by the federal government (such as fruits, potatoes and raw poultry) into highly processed, far less nutritious foods (French fries, chicken nuggets, etc.). Komisar reports that in return many FSMCs receive financial rebates from processors (which FSMCs are legally required to pass on to districts, although some have been fined heavily for failing to do so) or “prompt payment discounts,” which Komisar says “are really rebates under another name.” (FMSC rebates have been discussed several times previously on The Lunch Tray, when I pointed readers to good reporting on the issue by school food blogger Ed Bruske.)
It’s a commonly held belief that FSMCs save school districts money, primarily by reducing labor costs. (Here in Houston, organized labor was vehemently opposed to the hiring of Aramark by then-superintendent Rod Paige in 1997.) And use of food processors is one way those costs are reduced: it obviously takes more and better skilled labor to prepare and cook potentially dangerous raw proteins like whole chicken parts than it does to simply heat up fully cooked nuggets from Tyson. (This trade-off was examined in further detail in The Lunch Tray’s recent coverage of a landmark purchase of raw chicken parts by Chicago Public Schools.)
But Komisar, citing a study conducted by Roland Zullo at the University of Michigan, questions the notion that FSMCs (and, implicitly, their heavy reliance on processed foods) save schools money. The Zullo study, from 2008, looked at various costs associated with school food including transportation, labor, food costs, and supplies and found that Michigan schools using FSMCs spent less on labor and food but more money on fees to the FSMC and on supplies, resulting in “no substantive economic savings.”
That finding that runs counter to popularly held beliefs about FSMCs, supposedly models of efficiency, and, indeed, Zullo found that when school district officials were simply asked about cost savings, many were under the impression that their FSMC was saving their district money, even when that was not the case. On the other hand, it’s also important to remember that such cost/benefit analyses are likely to be highly district-specific, as labor (and other) costs can be significantly greater in one geographic area than in another.
Yet the Zullo study raises important questions, ones which should be answered in any district using a FSMC. Here in HISD, for example, I wonder whether anyone has recently evaluated whether using Aramark is in fact saving the district money — not compared to the way Food Services was operated back in 1997, but as currently compared to comparable urban districts that are self-operating. What percentage of HISD’s government commodities are being sent to food processors, and how much are we paying in processing fees? Do those processing fees, along with Aramark’s yearly management fee and any increased costs for disposable serving supplies (which, according to the Zullo study, may be needed with fewer workers on a serving line) outweigh likely savings in labor costs and food procurement?
And finally, but most importantly, even if the district is saving money by retaining Aramark, is it true, as Komisar says, that we are doing so at the expense of food quality — and, therefore, our students’ health?
I don’t have these answers and I’m certainly not condemning Aramark’s performance in HISD based on Komisar’s piece. But I do think these are important questions that need to be asked, and I’ll be contacting both our school board members and Food Services for more information.
I’ll let you know what I’m able to find out.
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