By Thomas Vogel
The Proviso District 209 Board of Education approved a new one-year roughly $1.1 million contract with Aramark Education Services for the upcoming school year, despite strong criticism from school officials and board members at its July 11 board meeting.
Aramark has provided food services to District 209 for the past seven school years but recently there has been a significant dip in student participation and anecdotal complaints from both students and board members about the quality of food. But, given the bidding process timeline, including complying with Illinois state law, and the new 2017-2018 school year starting in about a month, the board needed to move forward with finding a food vendor and voted to approve the contract.
"I have zero confidence in this company," Dr. Patrick Hardy, Proviso East's principal, said of Aramark. "I want to say that I am sad that they're here. This is one of the most frustrating moments I've had in my time here. "
District 209 began the process of finding a new food service provider in March in an effort to see greater student participation along with expanded food options, including heathier meals, according to documents in its March 14 meeting packet. The Illinois State Board of Education must approve food service contracts to ensure compliance with federal and state lunch program guidelines.
Four companies responded to a bid request in May, with Aramark submitting the lowest quote by about $8,000. Typically, Illinois state law requires school district's to award contracts worth more than $25,000 to the lowest bidder, though there are exceptions.
Board President Theresa Kelly and Board Member Samuel Valtierrez, whose kids are students in the district, abstained from the vote.
Board members and school officials, including District 209 Supt. Dr. Jesse Rodriguez and Hardy, criticized Aramark's past performance at the meeting and cautioned company representatives present at the meeting that while the business relationship would continue, it was imperative the district see significant improvements to their level of service.
"The best predictor of future performance is past performance…If I was to bet on this, I am going to bet it's not going to happen," Rodríguez said. "It won't happen because the past performance shows that you have a bad track record. Let's fix that."
Aramark reps said there has been management changes at the company and that they were willing to work toward satisfying the board.
"In any district, students are likely to have complaints with something about the food," an Aramark spokesperson at the July 11 meeting said. "But we know that we are here to serve the students and make sure they're nourished because we know and believe that their nourishment is very closely tied to their academic success."
Kelly requested twice weekly updates from school principals and Rodríguez said the district would have audits throughout the year to keep taps on the food service.
Board Member Ned Wagner said he's heard students reporting "abysmal, horrible food" from Aramark.
"We were very sad to see the level of service that we were seeing last year from Aramark," Rodriguez said. "It was quite embarrassing for me as the superintendent to see those students and the quality of service they were getting."
Hardy added he's seen Aramark serve spoiled milk and bread and burnt pizza and has photographic evidence. He also told Aramark representatives his students merit a better level of service.
In a July 13 email to the Review, Hardy declined to share the photos.
"I have zero confidence in what Aramark will do for my students. I will say this publicly because it's how I feel. I only see one difference between my students and the students they serve well and they better figure out how to serve race and poverty because I'm not gonna tolerate it and I'm not gonna fall on my sword for Aramark," Hardy said, to loud applause from audience members. "If they serve other students well, they better figure out how to serve my students because they deserve it too."
The reported decrease in student participation, according the March board documents, was about 50 percent. This drop occurred "even though there is no cost for breakfast and/or lunch" for students. District 209, in 2015, began participating in the federal Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) which reimburses school districts in low-income areas for meal costs, according to the United States Department of Agriculture's website.
"Our students deserve better," Kelly said of the current quality of food service.