There are probably two key, interrelated reasons districts decide to contract food services. The first is economies of scale. The ability of large firms like Chartwells School Dining, Aramark School Support Services or Sodexho School Services to make mass purchases of foodstuffs and equipment dwarfs even that of the largest of districts. The resulting price advantages can be difficult to match. Chartwells, for instance, is a subsidiary of the Compass Group, a United Kingdom-based food services company that employs 400,000 people worldwide and provides food services to hospitals, universities, schools and entertainment venues, according to the company’s official Web site. Aramark, on the other hand, was large enough to assume the management of food services in the Houston Independent School District, which employed approximately 2,200 food service employees at the time.[xvii]
A second reason for the privatization of school food services may be the government’s particularly extensive regulation of school food service programs. The National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program, and the Special Milk Program for Children are highly complex, and a district may wish to contract with a food service management company not just to save money or improve services, but also to delegate to the contractor some of the regulatory compliance burdens.
These regulations can include everything from the proper definition of yogurt (“a coagulated milk product(s)”) to the menu choices that high school students must make.[xviii] While federal regulations also place additional mandates on private food service management companies, extensive federal regulation of even in-house school district food services may actually drive districts to contract with vendors that specialize in food services and in compliance with government health and food safety regulations.
[xviii] The NSLP’s rules governing high school student food choices are set out below:
“ii. Offer versus serve. Schools must offer at least three menu items for lunches. Senior high (as defined by the State education agency) school students must select at least two menu items and are allowed to decline a maximum of two menu items. The student must always take the entrée. The price of a reimbursable lunch does not change if the student does not take a menu item or requests smaller portions. At the discretion of the school food authority students below the senior high level may also participate in offer versus serve.”
See “Child Nutrition Programs, Part 210, National School Lunch Program, Sub-Chapter A.”