IT IS welcome news that the District has decided to seek a new vendor to provide food services to students in the public school system. But why it didn’t act sooner to cut ties with a company accused of price-gouging and shoddy service is inexplicable. We hope investigations by the D.C. inspector general and city auditor provide the answers, and that school officials quickly find a way to supply the nutritious meals that play an important role in student learning.
Officials said they will seek proposals from vendors interested in providing school lunches and other meals for the 2016-17 school year. The belated decision follows the uproar over the $19.4 million paid by Chartwells-Thompson Hospitality to settle whistleblower claims by former food services director Jeffrey Mills, who alleged that the company acted fraudulently in getting and then servicing the lucrative food contract. Chartwell admitted no wrongdoing and city officials had said the contract would be renewed.
Appropriately, however there was pushback from D.C. Council members, who noted that the D.C. attorney general had backed Mr. Mills’s account of repeated troubles with Chartwells and wondered if it were in the best interests of students to continue to do business with the firm. Chartwells apparently got the message, at one point telling the city it wanted to drop its services since “it has become clear to us that we are no longer a valued partner.”
Officials, though, warned that such a withdrawal would leave the schools in the lurch in providing meals for students when schools reopen in the fall with a projected enrollment of 47,000 students. That the school system has its back against the wall and will continue another year with Chartwells until an alternative is found is entirely its own doing. Not only did it ignore warnings from Mr. Mills, going so far as to fire him (he later got $450,000 to settle his wrongful dismissal suit), but also it turned a blind eye to a critical city audit.
Separate reviews of the issues surrounding school food service are underway by Inspector General Daniel W. Lucas and D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson. Ms. Patterson, in particular, is interested in why the District has had to subsidize food costs with local dollars while many other systems, including those with in-house operations, are able to turn a profit. Mr. Lucas and Ms. Patterson should talk further with Mr. Mills, whose commitment to healthier eating has him considering ways he might use some of the proceeds from his whistleblower suit to advance the nutrition of D.C. students.
What hopefully will not get lost in the search for new vendors is the impact healthy meals can play in helping children learn. That’s especially important in a city where it is estimated one in two children are at risk for hunger and an estimated 75 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price meals.