City on a Hill: No such thing as a free lunch

February 21, 2008

Next time you complain about the dismal options at Leo’s, take comfort in the fact that you’re not an elementary school student in one of the District of Columbia’s Public Schools. Students who are currently subjected to pre-plated meals like fish fillet on Fridays and meatloaf on Mondays might prefer their school system to spend a little less time on alliteration and a little more time providing them with better quality food.

“No one’s busting down the doors to get pre-plated food,” Mafara Hobson, spokesperson for DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee, said.

Fortunately, Rhee announced a plan last week for addressing the problems with DCPS food service. Instead of trying to improve the current in-house system, DCPS will begin relying on an outside contractor. The school district started soliciting proposals on February 17. So far none have come in.

Hobson said the advantage of using food service professionals is that they have expertise that the District can’t match. But even food service experts aren’t miracle-workers. It’s great that Rhee is addressing DCPS culinary shortcomings, but it’s a mistake to think that simply hiring an outside contractor will magically solve the problems.

DCPS food services aren’t just unappetizing; in fiscal year 2006 DCPS lost $9.5 million on its food service program. Predictions are that in fiscal year 2008 it will lose $11.6 million.

It doesn’t help that DCPS has underutilized the federal Free and Reduced Food program, which reimburses DCPS for meals served to low-income students. DCPS has been negligent in making sure the families of those students complete the application that would qualify them for the program.

DCPS is banking on the idea that an outside contractor will be able to improve the quality of the food, prompting more student participation in the food program and creating higher revenues.

DCPS expectations for the outside contractor are extremely high. In the past year DCPS started a pilot program in four schools that focuses on improving the food quality and menu options—instead of the all-American, artery-clogging fare, they offered options like Asian stir-fry and fresh salads—and whoever takes over will be expected to provide food of this caliber to students throughout the District. They will also have to retain 222 of the District school-level food service employees, oversee applications for the federal Free and Reduced Food program and guarantee that they will either turn a profit or pay DCPS for any additional losses incurred.

While these are all worthwhile goals, it’s unrealistic to assume that these problems will be fixed simply by foisting the problems on an outside contractor. As other urban school districts have learned, outsourcing isn’t always a viable solution.

In the early 1990s the Baltimore City Public School System experimented with an outside food contractor for their high schools. According to Kathleen Wilson, Director of Nutrition Services for the BCPS, they switched back to in-house service after about five years, in part because the cost was not low enough.

“School food service is extremely difficult these days and everyone is trying to do it the best they can,” Wilson said. “Sometimes you need incremental changes.”

As Georgetown students know from the recent arrival of Aramark food services earlier this year, a change in catering companies doesn’t guarantee an improvement in food quality. Given DCPS history of failed quick-fixes—as the Washington Post put it back in June when Mayor Adrian Fenty (D) took over the school system, “D.C.’s schools are shot through with silver bullets”—there’s adequate reason to be skeptical about this plan. Recognizing a glaring problem is a good first step, but instead of fobbing the broken food system onto an outside source, DCPS should aim for more nuanced and thoughtful solutions.

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