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.”
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.