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Schools Considering Outside Contractor for Cafeteria Services

The administration is worried about continued deficits, but workers fear they may lose their jobs if the work is outsourced.

To save money and entice more kids to buy lunch more frequently, Farmington Public Schools and the are considering hiring an outside contractor to run the school system’s cafeterias.

The school district has lost $110,000 over the past two years — $55,000 each year — on its cafeteria operations, and handing operations to an outside contractor  is among the options being discussed to get the program back on track, according to Superintendent Kathleen Greider.

“We are exploring a variety of options to increase participation, improve food quality and increase revenues,” Greider said in an email Friday. “One option is contracting food services. The buying power of contracting food services provides opportunities for higher-quality food options, which would have an impact on participation. Other options will be generated within the school district, in collaboration with our Food Services department.”

Job Fears

The outsourcing option, however, sparked concerns among cafeteria workers that their jobs would be eliminated.

“We were told on Wednesday, ‘Well, you know, the cafeteria has been losing too much money and it’s come to a point where we’re going to put it out for bid,’” said one elementary school cafeteria worker, who asked her name not be used out of fear for her job.

“That’s my insurance. If I don’t have that job, I’m in trouble … They might want to rehire us all or maybe just the managers but it won’t be the same pay and benefits as we’re getting. I know there are places they can make all the food offsite and ship it to the schools every day.”

Though the cafeteria employee had been willing to give her name when she spoke to Patch Thursday, administrators warned employees not to comment on the issue on a Facebook page called “Save Farmington Cafeteria Workers Jobs,” on Friday.

Another cafeteria worker at the high school felt the same. There, employees are assuming that the contract is a done deal, she said.

“My coworkers, most of them, are pretty upset. They’re struggling families, a lot are single mothers and they’re scared and I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself either.”

But hiring an outside contractor to run the schools’ cafeterias does not necessarily mean replacing all staff, Greider said.

“The RFP includes requested information on how vendors would keep current cafeteria staff employed. At this time, we do not know the details of this, but the request is included in the RFP,” Greider wrote.

School administrators held meetings with Farmington cafeteria staff this week to inform them of the situation and told them a decision would likely be made by June 1.

‘It’s Just Not Possible’

Food Services Director Janet Calabro, who was not reachable by phone or email Friday, has tried several different approaches to increase participation in the program over the past two years. This year, she recommended not renewing the district’s participation in a national health lunch program, which rewards schools with a grant for meeting certain criteria of healthy food. Instead, she recommended piloting a store at Farmington High School that offers more choices — some that are more expensive and less healthy but are designed to appeal to kids.

“We opened up this store at the high school and it’s a very busy little store but it’s not enough,” said the high school employee. “There are different levels: kids who get free lunch and those who can afford anything. And you’re supposed to give them super healthy meals for $2.75. It’s just not possible.”

Over the past few years, Calabro has also added a number of healthier options to the menu, though in Board of Education meetings, many members who also have children in the schools have said the choices don’t appeal to kids.

The district recently conducted an online survey asking parents whether their children buy lunch, if not, why, and what they’d like to see more of. District Finance Manager Mike Ryan said his office is still reviewing the results of the surveys but the district is looking at all the options in hopes of making the program profitable.

"We've had a number of years in deficit and our fund balance is diminishing at a rate we can’t sustain," Ryan said by phone Friday. "We need to take some action and we’re trying to give management and the Board [of Education] a full series of options in order that we might make the intelligent decision."

Ryan said new legislation initiated by First Lady Michelle Obama that will reimburse districts 6 cents per lunch in exchange for meeting certain health criteria will take effect July 1, 2012.

"Most observers of this have speculated the cost to do this is certainly going to outrun the cost per meal and exert further pressure on school lunch, but it's generally observed that the diets of Americans are a problem and the schools — at least for the school day — are responsible. And we’re on board with that.

“But it’s a very difficult thing to do that and at the same time charge a reasonable price for lunch to our students. It’s a difficult balance," Ryan said.

He underlined that the issue is not unique to Farmington and that many districts are going to struggle with the added costs. Regionally, several other Farmington Valley towns have outsourced their cafeteria services, including Granby and Canton.

A Relationship Issue

Some parents are also concerned about what changes could mean.

Former Noah Wallace PTO president Ann Jett immediately set up a Facebook page and sent out a flurry of emails, urging parents to contact school and town administration. Some have discussed starting a petition.

The cafeteria employees are not only our neighbors, Jett said, but also an important part of students’ lives.

“Make your voice heard and let them know we don't want a corporation coming in with the prepackaged food to replace the hard-working individuals many of us have come to know quite well over the years,” Jett wrote in an email to parents.

Cafeteria workers agreed — one in tears.

“I have wonderful relationships with the kids. Recently I saw a high school kid who came running up to me and gave me a big hug … the relationships with all these kids and all the people I’ve worked with for all these years — it’s just so disheartening.”

Do you think outsourcing is the solution for Farmington Public Schools? Tell us in the comments.

James King May 11, 2012 at 10:40 PM
Bravo! If they go forward with this idea, it'll be a Win, Win, Win! Excellent current cafeteria workers will probably be first in line to apply for jobs with the new private-sector provider. A Win! Students will develop positive relationships with the new cafeteria service providers because the new providers (being easily fire-able) will have an even stronger incentive to provide the best possible and friendliest service. A Win! Farmington taxpayers will pay less for services that will probably be even better than the services currently being provided. A Win! Let's move toward systems that improve the lot of students and taxpayers, and away from systems that hard-wire established interests.
Jim Gray May 11, 2012 at 10:48 PM
Worth exploring. I wonder why it is a news flash?
D May 11, 2012 at 11:55 PM
Bravo to Ms. Greider for explaining this in detail....rumors are not helping the situation .
stephanie smith May 12, 2012 at 02:21 AM
LoL!! Pathetic. I don't think parents in our town want outside vendors feeding our kids. O.k., what's next? Going with the lowest bid?? Did anyone get an option? Pass the budget....and then throw this out there?
Larry Dorman May 12, 2012 at 03:01 AM
Win-Win? Hardly. Stephanie's on target. Private contractors won't hire the current workers. They're poverty-level employers. They low-ball their bids. They're in the money-making business. Children's nutrition can get in the way of making money. New Haven got rid of Aramark for those reasons and more, and brought food service management in house, using local cooks and a new emphasis on healthier foods.
Carole Langlias May 12, 2012 at 11:29 AM
Out source- YES! I worked for a school food service company in an elementary school for 10 years. Most employees are usually retained by new companies because they are familiar with the children and the facilities. Cost of lunches may go down because of the amounts of food these companies purchase. Most food is prepared in one or two schools daily and then transported to the other schools. If this can lower lunch costs, it IS THE WAY TO GO. Food choices may go up too, providing more options for the children. Hope this can be worked out!
Stacielyn Rydingsward May 12, 2012 at 12:16 PM
To take staff that live in our community and know and love our kids is wrong. I'm on board for healthier lunches and more choices.... Not sure how a private sector will be able to serve healthier lunches that will still be affordable. I hope BOE works with the caferteria staff and comes up with a decision that is best for the children! Why don't we out source from China isn't that the american way!
D May 12, 2012 at 12:30 PM
Some people need to grow up and think rationally rather than make snide remarks. Give the BOE some credit and support them instead of jumping to conclusions. This negativity is getting you nowhere...just makes you look ignorant.
Sas May 12, 2012 at 01:01 PM
"Food Services Director Janet Calabro, who was not reachable by phone or email Friday, has tried several different approaches to increase participation in the program over the past two years." Can we get a statement from Janet as to what she has actually tried to increase participation? After speaking to some BOE folks, they were out of the loop also on this. Stacie....I agree...... maybe lesser quality, absolutely no way healthier.
stephanie smith May 12, 2012 at 01:29 PM
@D, so does name calling.
Nancy Swanson May 12, 2012 at 02:22 PM
Larry Dorman is right. Farmington just pushed and pushed to restore services to the level (budget vote) to which they once were, one reason to restore teachers' jobs, and now the Superintendent is thinking of having our long-time employees reapply for their own jobs? How would everyone in favor of this proposal/suggestion like it if they had to reapply for their jobs after years of successful employment? West Hartford tried this years ago with their trash collection and it failed. Think of the employees Farmington!
Brian Antigiovanni May 12, 2012 at 04:31 PM
James, seriously... "Easily fire-able"? Really? These are human beings that are serving the town's children. You basically dehumanize the cafeteria workers down to replaceable servants. How will the children develop positive relationships with cafeteria workers that are a group of constantly changing employees that are hired after being subjected to questionable background checks. "A Win!"...you sound just like Charlie Sheen. If ignorance and contradiction is "winning", then congrats James... you are clearly a champion!!!!
D May 12, 2012 at 05:33 PM
Guess my statement hit a nerve and applies to u.
D May 12, 2012 at 05:42 PM
By the way, I don't believe I called anyone names. This is about sticking up for the cafeteria workers who genuinely love our children and improving a system that has not worked successfully over the past 2 years. The BOE is not made up of villains...I do not know how they can put up with some of this nonsense...they are doing the best they can under a tight budget. We should work with them rather than against them.
Sas May 12, 2012 at 06:43 PM
D.....it hasn't worked for a very good reason and that reason is going to hit the fan! Time for some throwing "under the bus."
D May 12, 2012 at 09:10 PM
Sassy Sas! Good luck! Don't break any laws, okay?
Farmington resident May 13, 2012 at 06:15 AM
It's not really a win for the workers because they will lose their benefits which is proabably the reason that they work in the cafeteria in the first place. Unfortunately because 80% of the budget is tied up in teacher salaries and benefits we have to start getting more creative on how to save money. Janitor services will probably be the next thing to look at and maybe how the payroll system works.

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