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Boston Schools Put Freeze On Food Privatization05:29

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A school cafeteria worker serves students in Boston's The English High School. (Andrew Phelps/WBUR)
A school cafeteria worker serves students in Boston's The English High School. (Andrew Phelps/WBUR)

You might recall a few weeks back we reported that the people who manage food at Boston Public Schools had been contemplating big changes to the menu. Faced with persistent deficits, they put out a request for proposals from private food service companies who could manage school food more efficiently — or so was the idea.

There are only a handful of multinational companies that do manage food on the scale of a large urban school system. A group of parents, activists and elected officials expressed grave concern that companies like Sodexo and Aramark would lower food quality in order to make profit margins.

A contract was supposed to have been awarded by July 1, and we can tell you now: That didn't happen.

If you think of this whole episode as Round 1, here's how City Council President Mike Ross tallies the score: "The sustainable, organic, healthy-food-for-our-children team, score one. The chicken-nugget-multinational-corporation, strip-our-city-of-its-kids'-opportunity-to-not-become-obese (team), zero."

That is one way of looking at it. Basically, here's what happened. The Boston Public Schools only got one serious bid for this contract, from Sodexo, a mammoth French multinational that has come under harsh criticism for its food quality and labor practices.

BPS Chief Operating Officer Michael Goar has been in charge of putting this contract out to bid. He says his RFP was just asking for too much. Among other demands, he wanted the contractor to guarantee it would close the school's $3.6 million food-service budget gap.

"I spend a lot of money eating outdoors, but sometimes I don't have the money, so I go lunchless."

Peter Li, 18

"When we say that we want someone to take all the risk of $3.6 million," Goar says, "and also say to them, 'By the way, you cannot touch any of our employees, oh, oh, by the way, we want you to provide more fruits and vegetables, and the last thing, we want you to partner with our local small firms in the city of Boston,' it became a challenge in terms of finding the degree of competition that we wanted."

Goar says he has since been able to revise down his deficit projection, to $2.5 million, so he has called it off with Sodexo, for now. Multiple sources with knowledge of the situation say he also faced political pressure from city councilors and Mayor Menino to put on the brakes. So the healthy school food advocates must be throwing a party. Right?

"I have mixed feelings about that, because if a big company like Sodexo had come in I feel like food quality would have improved a little bit," says 18-year-old Peter Li.

Li just wrapped up his junior year at the Boston Arts Academy, a BPS pilot school. The school has an open-campus policy, so most days Peter comes out here to the Fenway to find his lunch, because he's no fan of the endless parade of pizza and chicken nuggets he sees in the cafeteria.

"I spend a lot of money eating outdoors, but sometimes I don't have the money, so I go lunchless," he says.

Peter got so upset about his food choices that testified to the city council about school food back in April.

"Processed food right now that we have is basically fake food. It's not real, it's preservative. For my school, a lot of people do not eat the food," Li said at the council meeting.

Li sees a generational shift coming.

Most Boston elementary schools receive frozen, pre-packaged, "airline style" meals from a company in Philadelphia.

"Right now, in our generation, we want quality food and more nutritional kind of food, and I feel like the USDA and BPS system has to keep up with us," he says, "and I feel like they're not changing fast enough with us."

BPS COO Michael Goar says the work has just started.

"We still have budget gap to look after, also, more importantly, making sure that we have high-quality food for our children in Boston Public Schools everyday," he says.

Goar says that's exactly what he was hoping to achieve with that Sodexo contract that fell through. That's why the plan now is to put out another RFP in about a month that factors in the lower deficit estimate. He hopes they'll get more bids this time and then sign a contract for the spring semester.

For Council President Ross's part, that's unacceptable.

"You can't just re-bid this out at the $2.5 million number. We'll be nowhere different," he says.

Ross is calling for a different course of action. Much of the dissatisfaction with the current state of BPS food focuses on the approximately 60 percent of schools — most of them elementary — that don't have kitchens. They receive frozen, pre-packaged, "airline style" meals from a company in Philadelphia called Preferred Meal Systems. The meals are frequently the subject of criticism, in terms of nutrition, palatability and waste.

"The kids do not eat this stuff. They throw it away," Ross says. "So what I'd like to see happen is this preferred food contract, it needs to be re-bid. And there is a local, excellent company right here in Boston called City Fresh Foods. They don't freeze their food, they flash freeze, so it's just long enough to get to the school."

Dorchester-based City Fresh Foods is a darling of the local business community. Minority-owned, sustainability-minded, the company is frequently lauded by public officials. And while Michael Goar says he's open to the idea, swapping Preferred Meal Systems for City Fresh Foods would not address the system's remaining deficit and would do nothing to improve food quality at the 40 percent of schools that prepare their own food.

"I think that we as a system needs to think this holistically, how we want to approach this issue, is not just piecemeal but looking at it in a macro sense," Goar says.

And to Goar, thinking holistically right now still means trying to bring Sodexo or a similar company in to take over the whole system. Ross says he'd consider voting "no" on the entire BPS budget just to make sure that doesn't happen. But if the the schools enter a contract mid-year, Ross might not have a chance to, because it'll be too late in the budget cycle.

This program aired on July 1, 2010.

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