Starting in the fall, Proviso Township High Schools District 209 students and employees will be eating meals provided by another food services management company.
During a June 12 regular meeting, the D209 school board voted 6-0 to replace Aramark Education Services — the Philadelphia company the district had used for eight years — with Sodexo, a food services and facilities management company based in France. Board member Rodney Alexander abstained.
Sodexo’s $1.4 million bid was the third-highest among five bids — three of which were accepted. Aramark’s $1.3 million bid was the second-lowest, but it was rejected by the district because it didn’t meet an important criteria in the bid document, which allowed district officials to reject the bid of a company that “has previously failed to perform properly” within the district.
Officials said that, although Sodexo was not the lowest bidder, it was “most responsive” and that it met all the criteria in the bid document. The district entered a 1-year contract with the company, which starts Aug. 1, with an option to renew each year for the next four years through fiscal year 2023.
“Sodexo has committed to support our schools in its quest to continuously increase made-from-scratch food preparation and provide healthy and freshly prepared meals on a daily basis,” district officials stated in a June memo.
The board’s vote ended a long stretch of anger and frustration with Aramark that had been building within the district since at least 2016. By late 2017, only 63 percent of students participated in the free breakfast and lunch programs at the schools.
Emotions came to a boil during a regular meeting in November 2017 when students presented school board members with a packet of photos showing bad food, including moldy pizza.
In October 2017, district officials blasted Aramark after receiving complaints about spoiled milk, which company representatives acknowledged, explaining that the milk may have gone bad while it was being delivered to district schools in a truck whose cooling mechanism was not set at the proper temperatures.
The district went out to bid for food service management companies in March of this year, with the board resolving to find another vendor by June.
During the June 12 meeting before the board held a vote, two Aramark officials pleaded their case to board members, arguing that their service had improved significantly in the last year and that Sodexo’s bid was much more expensive.
Langston Hughes, Aramark’s director of business development, said that it had increased participation in its overall meal program by 14 percent while breakfast participation had increased by 6 percent.
Hughes added that the program also installed a new management team that resulted in healthier meals and a broader range of food options for students and employees.
“Some of our most vocal critics are now some of our strongest advocates,” said Hughes, referring in particular to Proviso East Principal Patrick Hardy, who praised one of those newly installed management employees, Joe Brown, Aramark’s food services director, for his work improving food service quality.
At the June meeting, Brown said that Aramark had invested more than $40,000 in signage and marketing materials to promote a food program that he helped overhaul. By the end of Aramark’s 1-year contract, Brown said, he had implemented a hot breakfast program at all three schools; met with faculty, staff and administrators across the district to discuss food quality; diversified and broadened the selection of food items; and opened teacher lounges that had once been closed; among other improvements.
“I ask you to allow me to keep pushing the program forward,” Brown said.
Hardy, who has been one of Aramark’s most vocal critics within the district, said that he had “very positive things to say about Joe Brown and his work,” adding that “the work of individuals should be recognized.”
But Hardy also insisted that he would “prefer not to be used as a reference for the company.”
Sodexo, which operates in school districts across the country, isn’t without controversy of its own. In 2010, according to a Chicago Sun-Times report, the company settled a $20 million lawsuit with the New York attorney general for “overbilling 21 school districts and the state university system.”
Five years earlier, Sodexo “paid $80 million to settle a class action lawsuit brought by thousands of African-American employees who were routinely denied promotions. At the time, it was one of the largest race-related, job-bias settlements in history.”
And recently, the company has been inundated by widely publicized complaints at Chicago Public Schools, where principals “now routinely report unsanitary bathroom conditions, lack of cleaning supplies, overflowing garbage cans, rodent and insect infestations — all under Sodexo and Aramark’s management,” according to the June 5 article in the Chicago Sun-Times.