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Boston Public Schools May Privatize Food Management12:24
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A school cafeteria worker serves students in Boston's English High School. (Andrew Phelps/WBUR)
A school cafeteria worker serves students in Boston's English High School. (Andrew Phelps/WBUR)

At Umana Barnes Middle School in East Boston, the kids are always asking chef Kirk Conrad for hot soup, even on hot days.

"That’s a homemade vegetable soup," Conrad says, pointing to a bubbling pot, "freshly made, all fresh ingredients, fresh vegetables we just chopped up, just waiting for it to come to a simmer."

Conrad continues his tour through the kitchen.

“And this is the vegetable for the day," he says. "So this is quick frozen broccoli, and we’re gonna steam it lightly in the steamer, and the kids really like it, too. It’s one of their favorites."

Chef Conrad supervises a team of six smiling ladies preparing about 500 lunches a day at this school. They have to settle for some processed or pre-packaged products here and there, but mostly, they try to use as much fresh food is possible.

But this is not a common scene in Boston's public schools. The majority of schools don’t even have kitchens. Widely loathed frozen meals are trucked in from a company in Philadelphia and revived in warming ovens, and even those schools that do have kitchens are serving a lot of processed, high-fat, high-sugar, high-sodium foods.

Problems In The Kitchens

Over the last few years, people have recognized this as a problem and have been trying to fix it: The East Boston-based nonprofit Project Bread, the Boston Public Health Commission, even Mayor Thomas M. Menino. All have stepped in to set up pilot programs for healthier cooking and eating like the one in Eastie. But at the same time, another problem has been simmering.

“Our food service division, since I’ve been here, three years, (has) been running — well it’s been four years — running in deficit,” says Michael Goar, chief operating officer of Boston Public Schools. “If the food service is sustaining a deficit of $3.5 million, that means that's $3.5 million they’re taking out of schools.”

The school is looking for a "co-manager" — someone who will run the existing system with the same employees, but who will guarantee to wipe out the deficit.

Boston City Council President Mike Ross does not like this idea. “They’re abandoning the progress they’ve made, throwing up their hands in the air, and saying ‘Well, we can’t do this, let’s call in the multinational corporations,' ” Ross says.

Ross says there are probably only a handful of multinational corporations that will be seriously considered for the job: Chartwells, Sodexo and Aramark. Chef Conrad's got experience with Sodexo.

“I’ve worked for Sodexo before and I’ve been in the big businesses, and it’s all about food cost," Conrad says. "It’s all about bottom line and money."

'It's That Kind Of Food That's Killing America'

Conrad worries that if one of those companies comes into the picture, it could derail his quest to bring healthy fresh cooking to East Boston.

“I don’t know if they would be as a aggressive in pursuing the cutting edge of fresh fruits and vegetables [...] whole grains and the brown rice and what we’re trying to push forward, like Jamie Oliver,” Conrad says.

Oliver is a British celebrity chef who’s got a new TV show that Ross, among others, has been watching.

“Jamie Oliver went to the most — I guess the most obese city in America — somewhere in West Virginia,” Ross explains, where Oliver scolded school lunch ladies for the food they were serving.

“It’s that kinda food that’s killing America,” Oliver told a lunch lady.

“You don’t have processed food in England?” she asked.

“God, yes," Oliver said. "And it’s killing England, too.”

Food, Or Books?

The handsome, shaggy chef may be right about that, but what's killing Boston Public Schools right now is budget cuts. Teacher layoffs and school closures in the coming year are all but certain. Goar says his top priority is to free up those food service deficit dollars for academic use.

“That $3.5 million we can spend on students in the classrooms are used by food service departments," Goar says, "so we wanna make sure that we run this particular enterprise correctly, (so) that we don’t have to lose money."

Goar is hoping to award a contract by the end of June, but he insists no contract will be signed unless the winning bidder can guarantee they will improve nutritional standards overall in the school system.

The City Council could stand in the way by voting down the BPS budget, but Ross says he's not ready to threaten that just yet.

This program aired on May 26, 2010.

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