A Scathing Critique of Privatized School Food

by Bettina Elias Siegel on December 5, 2011

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 here, 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 TLT’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.  In today’s Spork Report I ask some of those questions about Aramark’s role in overseeing Houston ISD school food.  I’ll let you know what I find out.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

orell fitzsimmons December 5, 2011 at 12:51 pm

“Until more parents demand reform of the school lunch system, children will contnue to suffer”. This was the last sentence in the Komisar article Sunday. When it comes to healthy food for our children it is clear to anyone that would look with their eyes wide open, that profits not health is the proirity for Armark. Any school board member that continues to not care about the health of our children is a baord member that should not be re-elected.

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Sophie Johnson December 5, 2011 at 3:59 pm

What is painful about this is that the NYT article brings great questions to the forefront, but paints the entire ‘food industry’ with the same brush. Justin wrote a blog about this to try to give some insight into the many differences within the food industry (which can include small family farmers, large organic corporations, etc.) and the businesses that keep the American economy going.
bit.ly/uMztwS

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Bettina Elias Siegel December 6, 2011 at 9:25 am

Sophie: Thanks for sharing Justin’s post — I’m going to go look at it now.

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