DCPS may get new lunch service
DCPS is taking a look at replacing its food service contractor, Chartwells-Thompson, which has drawn questions about the nutritional quality and efficiency of its operation.
In late December the District put out a "Request for Information" (RFI), asking other food service firms for ideas on an "operational model and supporting execution plan" that would break even and provide "overall high quality nutritious and safe meal service." An RFI is the prelude to an RFP (Request for Proposal), which would mean that the District is definitely in the market for a new meal contractor. Chartwells and other firms responded to the RFI, according to DCPS Chief Operating Officer Anthony J. Tata.
Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee decided to contract out food service shortly after she arrived in 2007, to save money and increase the quality of school breakfasts and lunches that are the only decent meals of the day for some public school kids. Her solution was Chartwells, a subsidiary of the giant Charlotte-based Compass Group, the world's largest provider of food service to corporate and school cafeterias.
The District's contract with Chartwells is now in the first of a series of option years, and Tata says he is looking for an upgrade. A decision on whether to pursue an RFP will be made sometime before the end of the school year.
"I am trying to get best possible food service program for the kids in DCPS," Tata said. "That may be with Chartwells, or that may be with some competitor."
Chartwells regional director Robert Kelley said in a statement: "Chartwells Thompson is committed to our partnership with the District of Columbia Public Schools. We have supported the District's initiatives and goals within the Child Nutrition Program. We are committed to this partnership and will continue to support them in all future endeavors."
Under prodding from Tata, Chartwells has moved from pre-packaged meals to "fresh cooked" at elementary schools and introduced healthier items such as whole-grain pasta.
But the reassessment comes amid increasing scrutiny. D.C. Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) has introduced a bill that would require sweeping improvements in student nutrition and health, including greater use of fresh, locally grown produce in school meals. A Jan. 26 Washington Times story recounted Chartwell's problems with food quality in other school systems, including Chicago.
And last month Ed Bruske, author of "The Slow Cook" blog, which promotes fresh food through urban agriculture, spent a week in the kitchen at H.D. Cooke Elementary. His seven-part series, "Tales from a D.C. School Kitchen," didn't have many yummy things to say about Chartwells.
Bruske, a former Washington Post reporter, said he saw little that was fresh about the fresh-cooked method. "I walked straight into the maws of the industrial food system, where meals are composed of ingredients out of a food chemist's lab, where highly processed food is doused with all sorts of additives and preservatives in distant factories, then cooked and shipped frozen so that it can be quickly reheated with minimal skill and placed on a steam table," he wrote.
Tata said he'd read all of Bruske's posts with interest and sent his food services manager to speak with him.
"I think it's great a parent is super-involved and we are soliciting his input as we go forward with our program changes," Tata said in a e-mail.
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February 12, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
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