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D.C. Schools Food Director Calls Chartwells Contract “Crap”

April 19th, 2011 · 5 Comments · Posted in kids, school food

D.C. schools food services chief Jeffrey Mills

D.C. Publice Schools food services chief Jeffrey Mills is deeply disappointed with the district’s contract with cafeteria giant Chartwells, The Slow Cook has learned, calling the agreement “crap” and outlining plans to establish nine satellite production kitchens the schools can use to make their own food sometime in the future.

Two new pilot food programs–one with D.C. Central Kitchen, another with Revolution Foods–have revealed the cost of lunch they provide to be $1 cheaper than what DCPS pays Chartwells. The pilot contractors are paid a flat rate to provide meals, while Chartwells receives an annual management fee, a fee for each meal served, plus reimbursement for all of its expenses.

What’s more, Mills says he has to “police everything they [Chartwells] do,” and still finds Tyson chicken products, high-fructose syrup and other objectionable items showing up on kids’ cafeteria trays even after he has specifically rejected them.

Mills is said to be convinced that he could “save $10 million” if D.C. Central Kitchen and Revolution Foods replaced Chartwells entirely, but those companies are not equipped to handle more than half the district’s 123 schools. Mills envisions serving food cooked from scratch in all of the district’s elementary schools, for instance. But that, he has said privately, is not likely to happen in the coming year.

Former schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee hired Chartwells in 2008 after declaring the schools unable to manage their own food service. At the time, according to former Chief Operating Officer Anthony Tata, the schools were losing between $11 million and $14 million annually on their cafeteria operations, buying pre-made “re-heat” meals trucked in from a suburban factory.

The initial contract with Chartwells called for a $28 million food services budget, under which Chartwells would reduce the flow of red ink to no more than $6 million annually. But Mills now says that “only $1 million of the reduction was guaranteed.”

Chartwells also caused the schools a good deal of embarrassment. In January of last year, after spending a week in the kitchen of my daughter’s elementary school, I published a series of blog posts detailing the highly-processed frozen convenience foods Chartwells routinely served at lunch–chicken nuggets, tater tots, “beef crumbles” and grilled cheese sandwiches made in Los Angeles and re-heated in their plastic wrappers. Breakfast was even worse. Along with frozen scrambled eggs and “french toast sticks” with high-fructose corn syrup, kids were eating Apple Jacks cereals doused with strawberry-flavored milk, Pop-Tarts, Giant Goldfish Grahams and Otis Spunkmeyer muffins.

On some days, children as young as five consumed the equivalent of 15 teaspoons of sugar before classes even started.

Subsequently I learned from documents obtained through the Freedeom of Information Act that Chartwells had turned over to the schools more than $1 million in rebates it had collected from large food manufacturers such as Kellogg, Pepperidge Farm and Otis Spunkmeyer. An assistant attorney general for New York State who is investigatin school food contracting has said the rebating practice creates “an inherent conflict of interest” in the choice of foods served to children. Food service companies operating under a “cost reimbursable” contract, as is the case in D.C., are required to credit the schools for all rebates or discounts they receive.

The rebates Chartwells reported to D.C. schools represented five percent of total purchases, compared to the 10 to 15 percent that New York Assistant Atty. Gen. John F. Carroll says is the industry average he has encountered in his investigation of rebating practices there. It took D.C. school officials nine months to get an accounting of food rebates from Chartwells, and Mills is said to be suspcious still that the schools are not receiving their due.

Chartwells is a subsidiary of Compass Group, a British-based international food service corporation that reported $23.5 billion in sales last year.

In December 2009, Tata tapped Mills, a restaurant developer from New York City, to be food services director, filling a position that had been vacant for more than a year. Within months after my expose of the food Chartwells  was serving, Mills decided to remove all flavored milk from D.C. Public Schools and undertook an item-by-item overhaul of the Chartwells menu.

Around that same time, the D.C. Council approved a “Healthy Schools Act” that provided more money for school meals–10 cents for breakfast, 10 cents for lunch, and 5 cents for every lunch containing a locally-grown component. Consequently, meals look substantially different in D.C. schools today. Kids can choose from organic yogurt and home-baked muffins for breakfast. Lunches range from a scratch-cooked spinach lasagna to roasted bone-in chicken to a Cajunp-seasoned tilapia filet.

This year schools have saved $1 million on food, even while serving breakfast in the classrooms of most elementary schools for the first time and implementing a supper program in 99 schools. Breakfast in the classroom boosts participation and brings in federal susbsidy dollars that can be used to improve food quality. The supper program also is a money maker. Meals cost $1.40, but are reimbursed by the U.S. Department of Agiculture to the tune of $2.92 each through the federal Child and Adult Care Food Program.

With the addition of these two programs, the schools expect to serve 2 million more meals this year. Still, participation in the lunch line is down 1.5 percent.

The trouble now is the kids frequently won’t eat the roasted local sweet potatoes or the lovingly prepared green bean salad. They need coaching, and schools need to reach out more to parents. Mills reportedly would like to see principals and teachers eating with the students. “Motivated principals make all the difference,” Mills is quoted as saying. But the schools face “huge challenges with internal staffing.”

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  • Judy Tiger

    awesome journalism, Ed. thanks!

  • Venkat Koripalli

    Ed,

    Good stuff as always. Some school food service operations are run very efficiently, serve nutritious meals, adhere to state and USDA guidelines, keep costs low, get a large percentage of students to participate and in general have satisfied students and parents. DC Schools currently does not seem to fit the bill but Jeffrey Mills seems to be a bright light and good things seem to be in store for DC Schools.

  • Ivana Kadija

    Those kids are so lucky to have Mills! Now all you need to do is examine the opportunities for reinforcing real food education in the curriculum. I find that the inconsistency between what we teach (and do… yes, the principal is crucial) and serve up, is huge. Imagine if you learned about fresh fruits in the required 15 minutes of “health education”, but then in science you examined how they grow and receive nutrients and in math you studied how much fructose is contained in an apple, in apple juice and in a slice of apple pie; Or how many apples’ worth of sugar are in the fruit juice? In social studies you might consider the impact of food on how cultures developed. In the school garden you might actually see the stuff “growing”. Hmm. My guess is that our nation would not be as nutritionally confused as it currently is.

  • CLC

    There are many great hard working people that are being tarnished on both sides. I am also sure there are three sides to every story.

    Fair contracting is the best solution, Clear expectations on both sides.

    http://www.clcfoodservice.com/About-Us

    CLC is a new association.

    Mission Statement

    CLC is not anti-contracting, but pro-responsible partnership. We support the many benefits these providers offer. Without their efforts, food service programs may not be affordable or evolved

    CLC is dedicated to fair partnership centered on integrity, truth, communication, fact-based analyses, and customer satisfaction focusing on economic improvements. CLC will provide industry knowledge, insight, and tools to help its members realize improved food quality, service and professional programs from contracted food service companies.

    Leveling the Playing Field of Food Service Contracting
    Individuals in the role of client, liaison or customer are often not equipped with the hospitality background and technical skills required to properly oversee the food service contracts with which they are tasked. The reality is most of the knowledge they receive is either on-the-job training or direction given from the vendor they oversee. Until now, no association, trade magazine or dedicated group has existed to provide education and support to these individuals responsible for contract oversight with food services companies. In this common vendor-guided environment, contracted companies anticipate this situation which allows them to grow their business with sales and profits traditionally unchallenged after the contracts are signed.

    Creating a vision of what client-liaisons’ duties must include making service providers successful. Furthermore, CLC provides unbiased insight into how contracted food service should work. Customer members will learn how to create a fair partnership and clear accountability with food service vendors at the best possible cost. As an association, our goal is to help members know what to ask, how to verify, and to evaluate if food service provider costs are sound and fair.

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