A company that serves meals to 2½ million schoolchildren daily in more than 500 districts nationwide, with multimillion-dollar contracts in both Washington and Chicago, has a history of marginal quality and food-safety scares amid concerns over the nutritional content of its school menus, according to school and company records.
Chartwells-Thompson School Dining Services, a subsidiary of the Charlotte, N.C.-based Compass Group, owner of Burger King, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, is one of North America’s largest school cafeteria operators — its contracts with the Chicago Public Schools from 2001 to 2009 totaling more than $289 million and a D.C. operation that could net the firm as much as $140 million from 2008 to 2013.
Besides sharing the same food service provider, the D.C. and Chicago districts both suffer from high rates of poverty and child obesity in what are known as “food deserts,” areas with poor access to healthy, affordable food. The District has the highest rate of adolescent obesity in the country, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Chicago ranks fourth-highest.
Even as Congress weighs recommendations from the not-for-profit, nongovernmental Institute of Medicine (IOM) for improving national school lunch standards, the D.C. school district does not list the nutritional content of school meals on its Web site — contrary to the more transparent policies in New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Seattle.
Just last year, in the face of Chicago’s child-obesity problem, Chartwells defended serving desserts to schoolchildren even as other districts abandoned the practice. Likewise, the company served cheese nachos on a daily basis as a means of getting children to partake in school lunch options.
In 2007, Chicago school officials similarly defended Chartwells’ cereal-for-lunch offering, which included sugary brands such as Trix and Cocoa Puffs. Two years later, cereal maker General Mills announced it was reducing the sugar content in its products, including Trix and Cocoa Puffs, in the face of growing scrutiny from consumers, regulators and health groups over the nutritional value of their foods.
A Chicago schools spokesman said the city’s school meals “meet or exceed” federal standards.
Also in 2007, Chartwells failed to notify school officials in Racine, Wis., of previous reports of tortilla contamination and a national recall by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2006. More than 100 children at five schools in the Racine district who ate tortillas served by Chartwells became ill.
Three years earlier, Chartwells had served tortillas from the same company to students in Revere, Mass., many of whom also became sick. Records show the company never notified Racine school officials about the prior incident.
Chartwells began serving Chicago Public Schools in 2000. It was referenced in a December 2001 investigative series by the Chicago Tribune that exposed filthy public-school kitchens and cafeterias, unsafe food-handling practices and unreported food-poisoning incidents at Chicago schools. Company officials contended the problems pre-dated them.
The series also noted that privatization of school lunch service had been costly. Since 2001, Chartwells’ contract with Chicago Public Schools has averaged $32 million per year, according to the Department of Procurement and Contracts.
D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee took over as chancellor in 2007, and soon opted to privatize the school lunch program. Her goal, she said, was to provide schoolchildren with tastier and healthier meals. At the time, she and D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty said they hoped to save $10 million each year by outsourcing food services in the city’s public school system.
“The mayor and I want to introduce students to a variety of foods to help train their palates to choose healthier foods for the rest of their lives,” Ms. Rhee said at a February 2008 press conference. “Good nutrition can certainly help enhance academic achievement.”
But it is unclear whether she has met that goal — or that Chartwells was a wise choice.View Entire Story
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