In July, the Proviso Township High Schools District 209 Board of Education begrudgingly approved a one-year, roughly $1.1 million contract with Aramark Education Services to feed district students who qualify for free breakfast and lunch.
Three months later, district officials are still frustrated with the company despite some signs of progress.
The board approved the contract, over widespread concern among students and district leadership about the quality of Aramark’s food and services. But, the district needed to hire a food vendor before the start of the school year and Aramark was the lowest of four bidders. With some exceptions, state law usually requires school districts to give contracts that are more than $25,000 to the lowest bidder.
But awarding Aramark the lucrative food services contract didn’t stop some district officials from criticizing what they considered to be Aramark’s poor quality. Proviso East Principal Patrick Hardy said in July that he had photographic evidence of Aramark serving spoiled milk and burnt pizza, according to a Forest Park Review report.
“I have zero confidence in this company,” Hardy said at the time. “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.”
During their Oct. 10 meeting, school board members zeroed in on yet another instance of students receiving spoiled milk this school year.
“We had this conversation when we gave you [a million-dollar contract] for spoiled milk before,” said school board member Rodney Alexander. “We were clear in stating to you that this was unacceptable. … It seems that maybe Aramark did not take us seriously and sent us spoiled milk again.”
Joe Brown, the district’s food services director for Aramark, admitted that spoiled milk that Aramark had received sometime in August ended up getting passed on to students. He said that the problem, however, originated not with the product but somewhere in the chain of delivery.
He said that Aramark did not take the temperature of milk coming into district buildings, so workers likely missed the fact that cartons had spoiled during delivery. Brown said that Aramark purchases Prairie Farms milk, which is delivered by a company called Clover Leaf.
“We were told that there was a truck that broke down and so the cooling mechanism on the truck didn’t maintain proper temperatures and it brought us a couple of deliveries before [workers] found out [about the spoiled milk],” Brown said, adding that the expiration date on the milk was marked for mid-September.
Brown said that when he found out about the spoiled milk, he “immediately came over and handled” the issue, sending back around 1,600 cartons. Although Aramark typically takes the temperature of food and drinks that come into district buildings, he said, workers did not test the temperature of the spoiled milk that Alexander had brought up.
“We did not initially inspect those,” Brown said, before adding that workers tested the temperature for all other subsequent deliveries of milk and have not had any recurring issues with the quality of milk since then.
Todd Drafall, D209’s chief financial officer, said that district officials met with Aramark representatives in September. He said that Aramark’s management team also meets regularly with building principals each month.
When the school board approved Aramark’s contract back in July, Forest Park Review reported that student participation in the free lunch and breakfast program had around 50 percent.
The district first started participating in the federal Community Eligibility Provision program, which reimburses school districts in low-income areas for the cost of meals, in 2015. The district has contracted with Aramark for food services for the last seven years.
“High standards start here,” said D209 Superintendent Jesse Rodriguez on Oct. 10. “The company has been directed to produce work at a very, very high level. Although there have been some significant changes, improvements, there’s still work that needs to be done.”