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D.C. school lunch firm questioned on nutrition

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.

Racine incident

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.

In June 2008, according to D.C. records, the company signed a one-year contract with four one-year options through 2013. To date, the District has paid $29.6 million. The contract with D.C. Public Schools for fiscal 2010 totals $27.8 million, according to D.C.'s chief financial officer.

Virginia partner

Chartwells' partner is Thompson Hospitality Corp., one of the largest minority-owned food service contractors in the United States. Virginia resident Warren M. Thompson is president and chairman of the company, which operates other food service contracts, including business and industry, government, stadium, and college and university accounts specializing in historically black schools.

Thompson Hospitality also owns and operates several restaurants in the D.C. metro area.

In 2008, Thompson Hospitality contributed $4,000 to Mr. Fenty's re-election campaign, according to D.C. election records. Since 1998, Mr. Thompson also has given more than $24,000 to the Democratic National Committee and various state and national Democratic candidates, including the presidential campaign of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland, Rep. James P. Moran of Virginia and the Chicago-based congressional campaign of President Obama, according to Federal Election Commission (FEC) records.

But information about what Chartwells is feeding the District's schoolchildren is hard to come by. Unlike school districts in surrounding Fairfax and Montgomery counties, which post nutritional information on their Web sites that exceed federal standards, the District posts only its school menus.

"We've been under the assumption that the meals meet federal standards but just barely, and those standards are out of date," said Andrew Newman, legislative analyst for D.C. Council member Mary Cheh, who last year introduced a sweeping proposal to improve school lunches and the health of schoolchildren in general.

Mr. Newman said the state superintendent of education ensures that D.C. schools comply with federal nutrition standards, but conceded he has not seen documentation — or data on nutritional content.

The superintendent's office did not return telephone calls.

The District is behind the curve in other ways. Citing the American Academy of Pediatrics, Ms. Cheh's bill said the District failed to enact either a school nutrition policy or a farm-to-school policy, as have several states.

In response to inquiries from The Washington Times, D.C. schools disclosed a 2006 "wellness policy," part of which addresses school nutrition. However, at a recent public working group, the superintendent's office said it does not conduct inspections to ensure that schools actually comply with the policy, Mr. Newman said in an e-mail.

According to the CDC, when asked, only 45 percent of principals in the District had a copy of the "wellness policy."

Meet or exceed

"The menus for D.C. schools meet or exceed [federal] guidelines for traditional food-based menu planning," Ms. Rhee's office said in a statement Monday. "Menus are randomly and periodically analyzed by Chartwells-Thompson to verify compliance with [those] guidelines. Menu nutritional analysis and food product ingredients are available from Chartwells-Thompson as soon as possible upon request."

Chartwells did not respond to numerous requests for comment on its schools food service program. Its parent company, the Compass Group, also declined to comment.

Ed Vitelli, a D.C. special-education teacher and Ph.D. candidate at George Washington University, said he was alarmed by the lack of response he received when he sought information on the District's school lunches — both from Chartwells and D.C. Public Schools officials.

Mr. Vitelli first contacted Whitney Bateson, resident dietitian for Chartwells, on Nov. 5 and asked for nutritional information on the food being served to D.C. public school students. On Nov. 11, Ms. Bateson replied, "We currently do not analyze all of our menus for calories, protein, etc.," according to e-mails Mr. Vitelli provided to The Times.

When Mr. Vitelli said he pressed for more data, Ms. Bateson provided him with several charts of daily nutrient values for specific meals on a handful of specific dates that he requested, and informed him she could be of no further assistance.

Mr. Vitelli filed a Freedom of Information Act request with D.C. Public Schools on Dec. 18, asking for comprehensive, detailed information about nutrition in school meals. More than a month later, he is without an answer.

The charts Ms. Bateson provided show that Chartwells offers students in grades K-12 two options for breakfast, some of which fall short of the U.S. recommended daily allowance of iron, depending on the menu. One menu would fall short of the required percentage of the daily allowance of iron even if a student ate both options.

In D.C. high schools, only three of the 18 menus Ms. Bateson provided offered female students an option with a sufficient amount of iron, the charts show. The school district also offers chocolate milk with every breakfast, although it contains nearly three times the sodium and calories of white milk and nearly four times the carbohydrates.

For grades K-3, the charts show that 28 percent of the meals (five out of 18) are insufficient in iron, and for grades 4-8, about 17 percent (three out of 18) are insufficient in iron.

In the case of prepackaged foods, such as Crispix, a breakfast cereal by Kellogg's, the nutritional information provided by Ms. Bateson conflicts with information on the manufacturer's Web site. And a comparison of the nutritional value of a hamburger for students in early childhood versus students in grades K-6 shows that the smaller burger has more protein, calcium, iron and Vitamin A than the larger one.

Although Chartwells' Web site says the company is committed to "constant, open dialogue at all levels internally and externally," Ms. Bateson declined to be interviewed for this report.

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