- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 12, 2016

A France-based food services company has won a $35 million contract to provide lunches for D.C. schools, despite its history of lawsuits and mismanagement, and just a year after the District severed ties with a different vendor over similar issues.

The D.C. Council approved the school lunch contract with SodexoMagic on Tuesday in its last legislative session before lawmakers recess for the next two months. Elissa Silverman, Mary Cheh and Charles Allen were the only council members to vote against the contract.

The vote came just hours before Mayor Muriel Bowser announced at a press conference that she would convene a panel of residents, stakeholders and experts next week to find a replacement for Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson, who will be stepping down effective Oct. 1.

SodexoMagic is in partnership with Magic Johnson Enterprises, an investment firm founded by the retired NBA star player. It takes over the contract that had been held for seven years by Chartwells Dining Services, which agreed to pay $19.4 million to settle a lawsuit alleging the company served rotting food and defrauded the city of millions of dollars. School officials first announced the change in May.

Under the contract, D.C. Central Kitchen, which has provided meals for low-income and homeless D.C. residents since 1989, will service 12 schools in Ward 7. The remaining 101 public schools will be served by SodexoMagic and its subcontractor Revolutionary Foods, based in Oakland, California.

The contract is for one year, with the option to extend it another four years, potentially making it a five-year contract.

“It’s trading one big flawed contractor for another big flawed contractor,” Ms. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, said Tuesday.

Ms. Silverman, at-large independent, echoed that sentiment, saying Sodexo is “another giant vendor with a very troubled history.”

She went on to say that D.C. Public Schools promised to reduce the city’s dependence on a big contractor but didn’t deliver.

“A year after DCPS promised changed we are given a contract that seems almost identical to the last,” Ms. Silverman said.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, who voted for the contract, said there wasn’t any other option since the contract came to the legislative body a little more than a month before schools go back into session.

“The reality is that you have to have a food service contract in place,” Mr. Mendelson said. “There are no alternatives.”

In 2010, SodexoMagic paid $20 million to New York for a False Claims Act violation, and has had other troubles since then with rotting food and employee safety violations, Washington City Paper first reported in April.

Parents, teachers and some council members last week at an Education Committee hearing expressed outrage and concern about the multinational food services vendor and its impending contract with the school system.

At that hearing, Nathaniel Beers, DCPS chief of operations, blamed the delayed contract on work that needed to be done with the legal teams for the school system and SodexoMagic. He said it was difficult to hash out the contract because the District’s food health standards are stricter than those of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Negotiations between vendors and DCPS took substantially longer and were much more complex than we had expected,” Mr. Beers said.

The council has little say over contracts other than voting up or down to approve them. Lawmakers have no authority to modify contracts or select a vendor themselves.

Ms. Bowser backed the contract with Sodexo, saying in a Tuesday afternoon press conference that her administration worked hard to find a vendor that could handle the size of the school system effectively. The mayor said she chose the most responsible vendor that could handle the massive job of feeding 40,000 D.C. school students.

Mr. Mendelson took a similar tack, saying during the council’s vote on the contract that it would be tough to find a smaller, local company to service such a large school district. He also said the council could revisit the contract after the first year since an extension isn’t guaranteed.

“There aren’t a lot of companies who can do this on this scale,” he said. “I say we move forward with these contracts. The fact that it’s a one-year contract with options means that it’s a one-year contract.”

Many witnesses at last week’s public hearing said the process for selecting the vendor didn’t involve real input from parents, teachers or students.

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