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'Slow Cook' roasts D.C. schools for food rebates

Ed Bruske, "The Slow Cook" blogger, offers a revealing look at rebates in the food service industry, including the $1 million that DCPS has collected over the past couple of years from Chartwells, the giant food service contractor that handles school meals. Rebating, a common practice in the food industry, is used by manufacturers to steer purchasing agents toward their brands. Under federal law, Chartwells is required to credit DCPS for whatever rebates it receives for the purchases it makes on the school system's behalf.

Bruske suggests that rebates is a polite word for "kickbacks," and that they are used "to help imprint processed and often sugary food brands in the minds of young children. Rebates help explain why kids in D.C. schools routinely are served sugary cereals such as Kellogg's Apple Jacks, and treats like Kellogg's Pop-Tarts, Otis Spunkmeyer muffins, Pepperidge Farm Giant Goldfish Grahams, and flavored milk from Cloverland Dairy that is nearly the sugar equivalent of Coke or Mountain Dew."

Bruske, who based part of his research on Freedom of Information Act requests, also said that DCPS was notably incurious about the exact source of the rebate money. The agency receives a monthly lump sum line item on its Chartwells invoices, but nothing is broken down by brand. He said that while Jeff Mills, the school system's newly hired food services chief, "was said to be disturbed by the potentially corrosive effect" on school purchases, no one at DCPS had ever asked Chartwells for a breakdown.

D.C. schools Chief Operating Officer Tony Tata called the "kickback" reference "irresponsible," and that Bruske "is just flat wrong" about the failure to ask for an itemization. He said that he began pushing Chartwells for more details last October, and that when an initial response was not complete, he asked again. The data only recently arrived, he said.

Bruske said that wasn't his understanding from DCPS spokeswoman Jennifer Calloway when he asked. He also said the agency's "opaque" approach to sharing information was frustrating.

"I've asked them a million times to talk about these things and it's like pulling teeth," he said.

Mills is in the process of reviewing and approving all menu selections for the upcoming school year, with an eye toward having them meet or exceed nutrition standards set by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, which are more rigorous than those of USDA, Tata said.

"And the rebate, if there is one, will not factor at all into our decision making," he said.

As Bruske noted in his piece, DCPS has announced that it will discontinue serving flavored milks and sugary cereals.

Under pressure from parents and the D.C. Council to improve food offerings, DCPS is launching two pilot programs this fall at two groups of seven schools each. It is evaluating bids from companies interested in providing better portable meals to schools with limited kitchen facilities, and another to produce fresh-cooked meals from a central kitchen.

"The idea is to create some competition," Tata said.

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By Bill Turque  |  July 12, 2010; 3:41 PM ET
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I didn't invent the term "kickback" as it is applied to food industry rebates, so I'm not sure why Mr. Tata is calling me irresponsible for repeating it. I think the terms of its usage were explained clearly in the article, and don't reflect at all on the school system. Except there is the unsavory aspect that schools could be tempted to use those highly refined, sugary and popular brands of foods precisely because of the promise of a big rebate. I think that's what bothered Mr. Mills about them. The most illuminating aspect of Mr. Tata's remarks is that DCPS has been waiting some nine months, apparently, for Chartwells to respond to its request for an accounting of the rebates. I hope those documents will be made public immediately.

Posted by: euclidarms | July 12, 2010 4:47 PM | Report abuse

yeah that is true, major brands do give out free samples of their popular health products best place to get yours is tell your friends and family too

Posted by: bidzill | July 13, 2010 2:11 AM | Report abuse

It's irresponsible because rebates aren't kickbacks, unless the company is paying the DCPS purchasing agent directly. If any DCPS employee received some kind of extra compensation for contracting with them, THAT would be a kickback.

Posted by: NeedAMap | July 13, 2010 2:53 PM | Report abuse

Needamap, you seem to be confusing "kickback" with "bribe." As I said before, I did not call the rebates in question here "kickbacks," I wrote that rebates are sometimes referred to as "kickbacks" in food service circles. It would have been irresponsible of me as a journalist not to report the controversy that rebates in school food service generate. It sounds to me like Mr. Tata is lashing out at the messenger because he doesn't like the news. But rebates are controversial precisely because they do (or are supposed to) pass through to the schools, which could be viewed as an inducement to buy foods that may be less than ideal. For instance, the Berkeley school system does not deal in rebates because the local and regional companies they purchase from do not offer rebates. Whereas D.C. was getting its high-sugar Apple Jacks cereal rebated from Kellogg, for instance, Berkeley purchases organic cereal with only half the sugar from Nature's Path, which doesn't give rebates. Of course, Berkeley pays more for Nature's Path. And that's part of the larger point. Because school meal programs are maintained in a perpetual state of poverty, they are in thrall to large manufacturers of industrically processed convenience foods that are in the habit of giving rebates.

Posted by: euclidarms | July 14, 2010 8:34 AM | Report abuse

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