A Chartwells meal served last year at Payne Elementary School; photo courtesy Payne parent

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Something may be rotten in the D.C. Public Schools food services program, and it’s not just what the city feeds its children.

Last summer, the District reached a $19.4 million settlement in a whistleblower lawsuit against Chartwells/Thompson Hospitality. The suit was brought by former Food Services Director Jeffrey Mills, who was fired in 2013 for exposing fraud, price-gouging, and bad food. Revelations from the lawsuit prompted the D.C. Council to pressure DCPS to select a new vendor for the 2016-17 school year while extending the Chartwells contract for the current school year.

The idea was that DCPS would select a new contractor to eliminate fraud, reduce waste, and increase student participation. Meanwhile, District officials were supposed to research in-house preparation, something more than 80 percent of school districts in the country already do. The process of selecting a new vendor is underway, but Chancellor Kaya Henderson refuses to consider a self-operated alternative.

The chancellor’s obstinance was in high relief last month when D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson revealed that DCPS hasn’t just neglected to explore the in-house option—proven at other schools nationwide to be both feasible and profitable—but it’s neglected its own kitchen facilities. Patterson and her staff found broken ovens, unused equipment, and cafeterias built to serve more students than attend the schools. She plans to issue further findings in the weeks ahead.

Students, parents, teachers, and nutrition advocates are wary of the food DCPS serves, and while Chartwells is probably on its way out, sources familiar with the bid solicitation fear another corporate behemoth, Sodexo, Inc., is on its way in. Sodexo settled a $20 million False Claims Act case in New York in 2010 and repeatedly has sustained findings of spoiled or expired food and employee safety violations in various states since 2010.

“If [DCPS] trades Chartwells for Sodexo, people will be rightfully outraged,” says a Council source. “They will have to own that.”

DCPS serves more than 40,000 children at 111 schools: Chartwells is responsible for feeding kids at 99, D.C. Central Kitchen has eight, and Revolution Foods has four—down from seven in recent years. The vendors serve about nine million meals per school year—down from 11 million in 2012. With Chartwells and D.C. Central Kitchen, employees cook, assemble, and serve meals out of school kitchens with ingredients shipped in by food suppliers. Revolution Foods prepares packaged meals at a central kitchen and delivers them to be heated and served on site.

More than anything, food services is a numbers game. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reimburses schools for meals served under a free and reduced-price program. DCPS operates on a fixed-price per-meal basis, a decision implemented after Chartwells abused a cost reimbursement model by over-ordering, allowing food waste, then pocketing rebates from food suppliers. The alternative price-per-meal model gives unscrupulous vendors incentive to order cheaply and pocket the difference between cost and price.

Assessing food quality and desirability is difficult. Breakfast participation at DCPS schools has dropped from first in the nation (under Mills) to third, according to the USDA, and dinner participation is down by 50 percent. A teacher at Malcolm X Elementary at Green, who asks not to be named, says even Revolution Foods, despite a reputation for using healthy ingredients, delivers meals that students don’t want to eat. The Malcolm X student body is 100 percent eligible for the USDA lunch program, which “sounds like a fantastic deal,” the teacher says, “but I’m amazed at the amount of food waste and the obsessive accounting” used to show participation. “Whole trays of food must be given out to each student. [They] will walk right out of line and drop the trays in the trash.”

DCPS tells a different story, using different statistics and different timeframes. A recent annual report to the Council’s Committee on Education claims that in the past three fiscal years, meal-participation rates have steadily increased. However, a chart produced by the DCPS Office of Food and Nutrition Services last March, obtained by Washington City Paper, shows a steady decrease in breakfast participation from the 2011-12 to the 2013-14 school years and a dramatic decrease in supper participation. The chart also shows a sharp increase in snacks served, which may explain why, in an attachment to the current request for proposal, supper and snacks are combined into one category to show an increase in after-school participation.

Staff for At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, who is not on the education committee but who opposed extending the Chartwells contract, have noted the disparities. “Our concern is we want to see data that shows kids are participating and eating the food,” says Silverman’s Senior Policy Advisor Samuel Rosen-Amy. “And so far we haven’t seen that data.”

As DCPS has surveyed students and families in every ward, the Council has tried to assure  them their voices matter. At-Large Councilmember David Grosso, chair of the education committee, says he has reviewed the previous solicitation, visited six different schools, emphasized culinary arts and sustainability, and issued directives on improved quality, community engagement, and performance metrics.

DCPS says Grosso’s visits were “unannounced,” but concedes he met Rob Jaber, director of food and nutrition services, at each site to speak with students and staff. “No other food service personnel were present other than those already scheduled at each school,” says a DCPS spokesperson.

In a comment on Twitter, however, Grosso agrees that truly unannounced visits are more effective, but says “a random adult showing up and asking to try the food is a little strange.” In an email, his spokesperson says, “The school cafeteria staff and their management were not notified that Councilman Grosso and Rob Jaber were visiting their kitchens to taste meals. Rob Jaber attended at the request of Councilman Grosso.” Silverman and Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, a member of the education committee, also conducted visits.

Council sources say Grosso has prioritized issues other than school food. They describe Jaber, a former Chartwells employee, as unlikely to play “bad cop” with vendors. Interviews with sources involved and uninvolved with the education committee are resigned that, despite all assurances, neither DCPS nor the Council are seeking to truly advance the food services program. “Sometimes you have to accept their word,” says Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh of DCPS. “Until I see evidence to the contrary, I’m not going to make any accusations.”

Yet transparency has been a nagging issue. DCPS does not disclose bids or identify bidders. Jaber promised a “diverse panel” of bid reviewers, but DCPS refuses to say who is on the panel, allowing only that the “program manager,” Jaber, selected them. The solicitation is full of boilerplate language and is substantially similar to the previous one, though DCPS dropped provisions that banned meat with hormones, antibiotics, genetically modified organisms, or chemical processing, and requirements that meat products be free of bad odors or signs of deterioration.

One change in the program is that rather than bidding for individual schools, vendors are bidding on “clusters” of between 10 and 12 schools. Some advocates see this as an opportunity to spur competition and innovation, pointing out that Revolution Foods started as a pilot project in Oakland, Calif. But if the market space is open to chef-driven alternatives, the question is, who is out there, and who wants to do business with the District?

There is one chef-driven company rumored to have bid on the DCPS contract, however: a company Mills founded, called Genuine Foods, which boasts a James Beard award-winning chef and an experienced management team. Mills declined to comment for this story.

An award could come as soon as April. Though sources expect D.C. Central Kitchen to receive an award for just one or two clusters, all eyes are on Sodexo and Revolution Foods. People familiar with the two companies say they have joined together in a unified bid and that a large award is inevitable.

Ivy Ken, a sociology professor at George Washington University who is involved in a group called the D.C. School Food Project, has voiced concerns about openness in the process. “This is especially true because of the whistleblower suit that just occurred,” she says.

In Council testimony last fall, Ken recommended that no company to ever settle a fraud suit be allowed to bid on the DCPS contract. That would knock out Chartwells and Sodexo, she says. But it all comes back to in-house food services, says a Council source, “and there is zero chance of that happening under this chancellor.” Asked if a recommendation from the D.C. Auditor could prompt the Council to force Henderson’s hand, the source says, “If Grosso is not going to lead, then it is not going to happen.”