CHESTER – The school board, after reviewing its food service program options, has decided to keep the program in house. The decision was made at the July 17 meeting after months of discussing the issue at meetings and with parents, and after soliciting bids from applicants and professional food service providers.
The issue was prompted when the board let former in-house director Cheryl Musser go. This prompted concern from parents passionate about making sure the board made a decision that kept their kids at the forefront of the kitchen’s concerns.
At a special meeting the board set up with parents, there was unanimous support for the in-house option. Parents said such a scenario would best cater to their kids, and expressed concerns that a corporate solution would result in cut corners and less communication between kids and the kitchen and parents and the kitchen.
School board members explained to parents that while they heard them, they needed to pursue all options for the kitchen before making a decision. At last week’s meeting, the board reviewed three responses from a Request for Proposal they issued to for-profit food service providers.
Chair Royal Richardson explained that all the companies provided detailed responses and presented plans that, at least in words, met most of the goals parents had asked for in the kitchen. Two companies, The Abbey Group and Fresh Picks Café (Café Services), came in with bids of approximately $185,000 for the coming year. A third company, Fitz, Vogt, came in at $250,000 but had a much more ambitious plan for the Chester Academy kitchen.
Richardson described the menus from Fitz, Vogt as extravagant, more like a restaurant than a school food program. It included guest chefs, a smoothie bar, salad bar, the donation of about $12,000 of new equipment for the kitchen and other “glamorous” options, said Richardson. It all sounded good, according to the school board, but they wondered whether Fitz, Vogt would actually provide all those options.
Fitz, Vogt was projecting a substantial increase in students buying lunch and breakfast at the school, up from the current 59 percent to nearly 90 percent. School administration and board members were skeptical if they could do that, and questioned whether, if they couldn’t, corners would be cut.
Principal Leslie Leahy said that realistically any company coming into the school will begin with its presented plan and then make adjustments as the year progresses if it is not meeting revenue projections.
Financial manager Annmarie Scribner said all school lunches have to meet state and federal guidelines for nutrition.
And while Fitz, Vogt said current kitchen employees would be given priority in hiring, the other two companies were less willing to accept those employees. Another difference among the vendors was that the Abbey Group would not have an on-site food director. All companies had detailed plans for marketing.
Interim superintendent Jim Gaylord handled the process of finding an in-house kitchen manager. There were 11 applicants, three of whom he deemed of sufficient quality to get an interview. The one person he followed up with had glowing reviews from her current employer and in Gaylord’s opinion had a strong background to be a success in Chester.
The individual comes from a kindergarten through eighth grade school where she turned around a food service program, keeping food healthy and of good quality and under budget, Gaylord explained.
School board member Maria Veale said when such difficult decisions faced her, she fell back on the comments of those who elected her. And they want the program in-house, said Veale.
School board member Sarah Ungaro said she agreed 100 percent. While she conceded that the meeting the board held for parent input wasn’t filled with every parent in the school, the meeting attracted those who cared very much about the future of the program and they unanimously wanted the program in house.
Richardson said all of the companies provided what parents were looking for. He added that they did not seem like the corporate monoliths some have serious concerns with, but instead seem community focused and willing to work well with the school community.
But, Richardson added, the individual candidate also seems to meet that community wish list.
When public comment was sought, parent Melissa Munroe said the in-house option provided a better chance to get people in the kitchen who care about the kids. And that was the most important thing, she said.
Parent Patrick Connelly thanked the board for its due diligence in researching the matter, but said he was excited about the local candidate and was looking forward to letting his kids buy lunch if they wanted.
The board decided unanimously to keep the program in house and to make an offer to the local candidate found by Gaylord.