Proviso Township High Schools District 209 is exploring cutting ties with its food service provider, as complaints of moldy and spoiled food pile up.
During a Nov. 7 regular board meeting, though, school board members learned that severing its relationship with Aramark Education Services might mean a legal fight with the billion-dollar conglomerate or even confronting the powerful Illinois State Board of Education.
The state board oversees the arduous bid process for the National School Lunch Program, the federally assisted program that offers free and reduced-price breakfast and lunch meals to students.
In July, the D209 school board begrudgingly approved a 1-year, roughly $1.1 million food services contract with Aramark to provide free breakfast and lunch despite many complaints from students and district officials about the quality of the company's food and services, and the program's low participation rate.
At D209, 63 percent of students participated in the program in the first two months of this school year, according to district officials, who explained that the participation rate "is too low, given the fact that all students can receive a free lunch and are required to eat on campus."
But the district needed to hire a vendor before the start of this school year and Aramark was the lowest of four bidders. With few exceptions, the state requires school districts to give contracts that are more than $25,000 to the lowest bidder.
Since July, the board has fielded many complaints, including instances of spoiled milk, which Aramark officials confirmed and addressed in October. The collective frustration with Aramark was perhaps most potent during the public-comment portion of the Nov. 7 meeting.
Kaila Ramiro, a Proviso West student, distributed to board members a bound packet full of photos of bad food, including moldy pizza.
Ramiro student isn't alone. Her complaints are in line with other student-driven protests against Aramark, such as the School Lunch Project, created by civics students at a school in Chicago.
In 2015, the students launched a website featuring photos of Aramark food that they were served. The photos included meat patties that appear to have plastic pellets in them and overly bruised fruit.
"Aramark has stated on their website that they serve food 'inspired by the people we serve.' It is quite evident that Aramark finds the people of Proviso uninspiring [based on] the quality of food that they serve us," Ramiro said, adding that she was speaking on behalf of the student council. "Aramark continues to serve your students food that is unhealthy, unsanitary and inedible."
The student's concerns lent a heightened sense of urgency to the possibility of severing ties with Aramark, but district administration officials said that doing away with the company before this school year would be virtually impossible.
For one, the bid process for seeking a vendor for the national lunch program typically takes 3-4 months to complete, said Todd Drafall, D209's chief financial officer. And further, he said, each step of the bid process, from issuing the bid to finalizing the contract, must be approved by the state board.
School districts that participate in the national lunch program are only required to bid food service contracts every five years, according to a district report detailing the status of the food service program.
But the marketplace for food service vendors is limited and the district's frequent bidding on vendors could alarm the few vendors in the state that can provide free lunch and breakfast, the report said.
"If the district bids again for the 2018 school year, it will be the third year in a row," according to the report. "The concern is that, given the format of the state bidding process, if a lower bidder does successfully bid the job and the district receives less than the current vendor, it will be bidding out again in a year. The district runs the risk of 'scaring off' vendors from participating in the process."
The report added that, in Illinois, "the bidder with the lowest meal rate is the lowest bidder." That's unlike in neighboring states, where the bidder with the lowest management rate can be recognized as the lowest bidder — a process that may result in better food and service quality.
Many food service vendors that operate nationally don't participate in Illinois, partly because of the unique way the state board sets up the national lunch program bidding process, the report explained.
"The way [the bid process] is formatted is very frustrating," said Drafall.
Drafall and D209 Supt. Jesse Rodriguez said that, since July, the district has pressed Aramark officials to improve their services. Rodriguez said he's been in direct communication with Aramark about food service and that the company's management team meets regularly with building principals.
"I hear from principals that there have been improvements over what has taken place in the past," Rodriguez said. "They're still not meeting standard, but there has been significant improvement to what we had in the past. This doesn't excuse the fact that we have [these problems]."
Outside of pressing Aramark officials to improve its food service quality, the district's report stated that district officials made changes to the bid process "to increase quality, service, and participation in the program."
The district, for instance, tried to "add an evaluation process, which included a taste testing of the food," but one of the bidders protested to the state board staff and the requirement was removed.
The report recommended that the board engage with legislators and other school districts to change how the national lunch program's bidding process is structured.
Many board members, however, were frustrated that, outside of complaining to Aramark, there didn't appear to be much they could immediately do about what many students and district officials consider to be the company's sub-par performance.
Some explored the possibility of ending the Aramark contract and even of leaving the national lunch program, if staying in the program means having to continue with Aramark.
"Is it possible for us to opt out of this state-funded [school lunch program]?" board member Rodney Alexander asked Drafall. The answer was "No."
"If Aramark isn't meeting the requirements of having healthy, clean, non-rotten food that [won't] cause death, you're saying that because you're in this contract," asked board member Della Patterson, "We can't come out of [it]?"
Drafall said he was just explaining the bid process and wasn't aware of "the legal process of ending a contract and how that works."
"At some point, you draw the line," Patterson said. "If that means we get on a bus and go down to Springfield and show them these pictures [of spoiled food], then that's what we do."
Alexander said even though he was in favor of ending the relationship with Aramark, he didn't want the district to be dragged into court with the company.
"I don't want a legal battle with Aramark," he said. "I want minimum to zero [legal] exposure. Real options. If we're stuck, then we're stuck. I just want it plain. Is there something we can do? But it would be fiscally irresponsible to get into a legal battle with people serving students bad food. I don't want to upset the person making the burger for my kid."
Patterson, however, pushed back somewhat, explaining that, while she sympathized with Alexander's concerns, "I also don't want our children to become deathly ill because we're thinking about how we're doing things legally. I don't want it to be on my conscience that [a student told us] the food is not good and we sat here worried about a contract."
Rodriguez said he'll consult with the district's legal counsel and come back to the board in December with a range of options for dealing with Aramark.
"We understand there is a problem," he said. "That's very clear. If this is something you want us to aggressively pursue, let me know. If you want us to be cautious, let me know."