Students in Asheville City Schools will be eating meals selected, prepared and purchased by a private food vendor next school year in a controversial move to privatize the district’s nutrition program.
The Asheville City Board of Education voted 6-1 to enter into an annual contract for the fiscal year starting July 1 with Chartwells, a subsidiary of Compass Group USA, at a special meeting June 29.
Liza Kelly was the lone dissenting vote after a lengthy discussion at a meeting that did not allow public comment.
Kelly said she was initially in favor of the move, but after hearing from parents and staff, she was concerned that Chartwells would convince the district to make equipment investments, not deliver on food quality promises and leave the district saddled with debt. She said she was also concerned Chartwells would make hires that wouldn’t be as community-minded as current ACS nutrition staff.
Under the contract, all current ACS staff would be retained, including nutrition director Melissa Bates, who would still lead the department, said Georgia Harvey, ACS chief financial officer. In anticipation of increased participation, Chartwells would be in charge of hiring and paying additional nutrition staff as needed at the same rate that ACS staff of equal experience are paid, although without state benefits.
Chartwells will pay for up to $250,000 for improvements to school kitchens like equipment upgrades, which ACS will pay back over a five-year period.
Currently, ACS charges $3.25 for elementary school meals and $3.50 for meals at the middle and high schools, which will not change next school year, said ACS spokesperson Dillon Huffman. Chartwells will charge ACS up to $2.40 per meal, per its contract.
Board Vice Chair Amy Ray acknowledged the quick turnaround between the contract’s public introduction at a special called work session June 15 and the June 29 decision was “not ideal.” But ultimately, after initial skepticism, she supported the contract because she felt the board’s concerns were addressed in the final deal.
The flexibility of being able to opt out of the contract each year, Chartwells paying new hires the same as those grandfathered in with ACS and the promise of increased quality convinced Ray to vote in favor, she said.
“This is an equity decision for me. Not everyone has access to parents who can make a nutritious meal at home, as I have for years for [my] children,” she said. “Our participation is exceedingly low because our staff are not able to present and make the same food that we were able to make 15 years ago. They don’t have the equipment, they don’t have the food. They can’t do it. Our students deserve better, they deserve more options, and they deserve better options.”
Plus, Ray said, the district’s nutrition program has run a deficit for the past six years, so even with some debt for equipment upgrades, at least the district will get some return on investment.
At the beginning of fiscal year 2022, the nutrition department was more than $787,000 in debt, Huffman said.
Kelly also referenced problems in the district’s current food program.
“In hearing from parents and staff, some of the concerns about our current school nutrition had been unaddressed, and our food nutrition staff have made requests that have gone unfulfilled. And there are concerns that there’s a supply chain breakdown that falls somewhere between our leadership and the cafeteria. Our staff are asking for better food and haven’t been getting it.”
Christina Mason, whose child attends Isaac Dickson Elementary, sent at least two letters to board members adamantly opposing the contract, which she shared with Xpress.
In April, she urged board members to avoid outsourcing school meals because her research suggested private companies would cut corners on staffing and quality. She said she received no response from school board members to that letter.
After the June 15 work session on the topic, Mason wrote board members again, citing several reports of poor-quality food served by Chartwells in other school districts, including in Woodbridge, N.J., and at Seattle University.
Also, in an audit of a Washington, D.C., school district, the Office of the District of Columbia Auditor found that contracting food services to three companies, the largest of which was Chartwells, failed to control costs as promised.
“Student meals aren’t the place to pinch pennies or make money,” Mason wrote. “How we nourish students should be consistent with our values: equity, good nutrition, fair employment and investing in our local economy. Outsourcing would disadvantage nutrition workers, cede local control, lower meal quality, promote big agriculture and send dollars out of our community.”
Harvey said Chartwells included an intention to source local produce as much as possible in its bid for the contract.
Ray acknowledged parental concerns about Chartwells’ spotty track record but remained hopeful that the contractor could help deliver better-quality food for more students than the district has been providing in-house. If the company doesn’t, the contract won’t get renewed next year, she said.
“We’ll be watching closely.”