A struggle school systems across the state and nationwide are having is operating a food service program which is self-sufficient without having to increase meal costs to students and staff by an amount which is not affordable.
Elkin City Schools is familiar with that challenge. During the 2014-15 school year, the food service program ran a deficit and had to be supplemented with funding from the system’s general operating funds to meet expenditures.
During the school board’s recent retreat, a presentation was given by Chartwells, which offers privatization of school cafeteria operations while guaranteeing the food service program will have a balanced budget even if that means Chartwells will write a check to make up the difference, according to Christine McGoldrick, representative of the company.
Chartwells did an analysis of Elkin City Schools’ cafeteria operations prior to making the presentation at the retreat. McGoldrick explained, “When doing our analysis, you want to have a self-sufficient food service budget. In the past two years, you’ve lost almost $59,135.”
Some of the reasons behind that loss of revenue is the lowering number of students purchasing school meals. McGoldrick said much of that is due to the government’s regulations on the healthiness of food, which students say doesn’t taste good.
“Sometimes school systems are out-pricing themselves. The average cost of a school meal is $2, you’re at $2.60 at the high school,” she said.
The goal of Chartwells, following the analysis of Elkin’s food services, will be to make the budget self-sufficient, to improve student satisfaction so more students want to eat the school-provided meals, improve the display of the food and have fun promotions, McGoldrick said.
She added one of the fears of school systems when an outside company takes over the food service program is what will happen with the local employees. “Our track record is proven that everyone keeps their job,” she said, explaining the school district can decide to keep the employees on the school payroll, this way long-time employees still retain the benefits and retirement, and then as employees leave for retirement or other reasons, through attrition newly hired employees would then go on Chartwells’ payroll. A school system also can opt to go ahead and move all food service employees to Chartwells’ payroll.
McGoldrick said her company will be able to bring in local fruits and vegetables, and they will teach the employees to cook from scratch.
There are two or three companies which offer privatization of food service operations, the Chartwells representatives, which included Peggy Luther from a South Carolina region and Amanda Mendenhall, who manages Chartwells operations at Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools.
Mendenhall explained Chartwells has a team of food service experts made up of dietitians, chefs, marketing specialists and more who work together to make sure menus are meeting nutritional guidelines and tasted good for students.
Some of the things the company focuses on in its schools include digital signage, food presentation, cafeteria design and layout, she said. Chartwells also offers training for its employees, from customer service, food and sanitation and inclusion training.
“We are always viewed as the big company, but we have a small-town feel because we are working with the employees in the community,” said Luther. “We are serving the students in a community. We don’t have people at regional or corporate writing the menu. Yes, there are basics, staples students like everywhere, but we always address menus acceptable in the community. The menu we serve in Burke County is not the same menu as Winston-Salem.”
The representatives said Chartwells makes a point to be part of the community. In some locations this has meant setting up at the local farmers markets and offering samples of what is offered for the students in the schools. “So local community members can see and taste first-hand what we’re doing in the schools,” said Luther.
Sodexo and Aramark are the other two companies who offer privatization of food service in schools, noted McGoldrick.
Chartwells’ representatives said both Burke County Schools and Winston-Salem/Forsyth County were losing about half a million dollars each year on food service. In the 14 years since Chartwells took over operations in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County, Mendenhall said they’ve shown profit. And Burke County Schools, which is in its first year with the company, is “in the black about $150,000 to $200,000 versus a loss of $500,000 last year,” said Luther.
Elkin City Schools’ child nutrition staff has been working hard to make a difference this year, said Superintendent Dr. Randy Bledsoe during the retreat. Following Friday’s presentation by Chartwells, on Saturday the board of education spent time in roundtable discussion milling over the idea of privatization of the food service operations.
One suggestion by Lisa Pendry, assistant principal at Elkin High School, was that Elkin staff, and maybe some parents, students or school board members, should pop in to a school in Winston-Salem to see what its cafeteria experience is like, including the taste of the food.
School board Vice Chair Haley Sullivan said she liked the ideas of having fresh fruits, but also said it would be beneficial to get presentations from the other two companies before making any decisions.
Jan Zachary, chief finance officer for Elkin City Schools, said, “Our cafeterias are doing better this year. They are working really hard, and we’re seeing it. Where we were $64,000 in the hole this time last year, we are $10,000 down this year, so I’m hoping to see it in the black. They are doing really well.”
Elkin Middle School Principal Casey Morrison said even students who pack their lunches are seen picking up items in the cafeteria. She liked the idea of having wraps and salads, yogurt parfaits that they can grab with their meals. “We have a lot of health conscience kids,” she said.
The Elkin administrators said with a 182-page request for proposals which must be done to gain bids from companies, if that’s what the school board wants to do, it may be the middle of the next school year before privatization of food service could be implemented.
School leaders were to work on the possibility of stopping by some schools where Chartwells is used before deciding on what to do about the topic of child nutrition.
Wendy Byerly Wood may be reached at 336-258-4058 or on Twitter @wendywoodeditor.