- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Parents and some D.C. Council members chided school officials Wednesday for offering a school lunch contract to a vendor with a history of lawsuits and rotting food, only a year after having parted ways with a different food service company for the same issues.

One of those parents — Gerald Ken, whose child attends D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) — questioned why officials offered the lunch contract to SodexoMagic, a French food services company that has partnered with Magic Johnson Enterprises, an investment firm founded by the retired NBA Hall of Famer.

“Why did we go with SodexoMagic?” Mr. Ken said at the council’s education committee hearing. “I don’t know. I haven’t been able to find out, and I’m pretty good with a computer. If we could answer these questions, I’d feel a little more comfortable about the results we ended up with. But now it’s, ‘Oh, we don’t have any time.’”

Other parents echoed his sentiments. Council member David Grosso, the at-large independent who chairs the committee, expressed frustration along with other lawmakers.

Council member Mary Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, slammed the school system’s decision, noting problems with the previous vendor, Chartwells Dining Services.

“The council [was] very upset with Chartwells and was hoping to get something different and something better,” Ms. Cheh said. “It looks like we didn’t get something different or better. And, in fact, it may be worse.”

“This especially affects low-income students,” said council member Elissa Silverman, at-large independent. “For some, it’s the only real meal they get during the day.”

School officials announced in May that SodexoMagic would become the system’s food services main contractor after Chartwells, 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. Chartwells had provided meals to schools for the last seven years.

Under a new contract, D.C. Central Kitchen, which has provided meals for low-income and homeless D.C. residents since 1989, would service 12 schools in Ward 7. The remaining 100 schools would be served by SodexoMagic, based in France, and its subcontractor Revolutionary Foods, based in Oakland, California.

The contracts for D.C. Central Kitchen and Sodexo, which will service about 40,000 students, must be approved by the office of the attorney general and D.C. Council before the deal is made final. It is unclear how much the contracts will cost.

If the council and attorney general don’t approve the contract before the start of the school year, which is Aug. 8 for some schools, DCPS will have to look at the other vendors who applied for the contract and pursue an emergency procurement for food services.

“The partnership’s contract with DCPS would provide an innovative program that will bring cutting-edge food concepts, state-of-the-art menu creation and adherence to the highest nutrition standards,” SodexoMagic and Revolution said in a joint statement after the contract was announced in May.

But Sodexo, a multinational food service contractor, isn’t problem-free. The company paid $20 million to New York for a False Claims Act violation in 2010, and has had other troubles since then with rotting food and employee safety violations, Washington City Paper first reported in April.

Many witnesses at Wednesday’s public hearing, as well as some lawmakers, said the process for selecting the vendor didn’t involve real input from parents, teachers or students.

Nathaniel Beers, the school system’s chief of operations, did little to assuage the concerns of lawmakers who peppered him with questions about parent and student involvement as well as the contract’s timeline.

Mr. Beers 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,” he said.

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