The District should resume in-house school lunches instead of continuing to contract out for food services that have provided meals of questionably quality at a cost of millions of dollars over the past six years, according to an audit released Friday.
“Our review makes clear that the savings promised when we privatized food services have not occurred across several management companies, nor have we seen the level of participation that we would like to see,” said D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson.
Ms. Patterson said placing the school lunch program under the control of workers who are accountable to the mayor and D.C. Council would allow for greater oversight and lower costs.
D.C. Public Schools started contracting out food services in 2008; before then, meals were prepared by DCPS employees. School officials had said that privatizing the service would lower costs by 73 percent by 2011, but that did not occur. The school system saved only 5 percent over that period.
In the academic year that ended in June, D.C. Public Schools paid its food service vendors about $4.24 for each lunch served. The city received federal reimbursement for most meals at $3.15, and paid the difference from city funds, which amounted to about $9 million in fiscal 2015.
“DCPS’s cost per meal served is notably higher than any of the other school systems profiled, all of which are self-operating and, therefore, do not pay a markup or profit to food service management companies,” the report said.
Baltimore served 14.1 million school lunches at a cost of $2.95 per meal. New Haven, Connecticut, served 4.5 million lunches at $3.10 per meal, significantly lower than the $4.24 DCPS paid to contractors.
The audit says the District has the facilities to provide its own food services. Seventy-two schools currently have on-site kitchens, with six operating as main hubs. And 31 schools have satellite kitchens that could be used.
But many of those schools have equipment that has fallen into disrepair. The audit noted an industrial-size dishwasher was not in use at Cordoza Education Campus. At Luke C. Moore High School, auditors found a leaking steaming table, ovens with broken timers and temperature dials, a tilt skillet with a broken temperature dial and a broken garbage disposal.
“In some cases, it was reported that repair requests had been left unresolved for more than a year,” the audit says.
The report comes amid years of controversy with regard to the performance of DCPS’ lunch providers.
School officials announced in May that SodexoMagic would become the main food services 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 the new contract, D.C. Central Kitchen, which has provided meals for low-income and homeless city 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 contract with Sodexo will service about 40,000 students.
Sodexo 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.
DCPS said that steps have been taken to control costs and that the program should be brought back in-house.
A letter to the auditor from Carla Watson, DCPS interim chief operating officer, said “there are many immediate risks that inform our decision to not move forward with such an initiative at this time.”
Ms. Watson said doing that would cause DCPS to experience an “immediate budget strain” because the existing food service workers would have to be absorbed and that would require a significant investment.
“We have confidence in our existing contracts, which require the highest level of nutrition, food quality, customer service, innovation and community partnership,” she said.