Recipe for Trouble

City schools' new food plan fails to deliver

Among institutions in the United States, only the military feeds more people than the New York City schools, where cafeterias serve 800,000 meals every day of the school year. Getting all that food from the companies that produce it to the 1,200 lunchrooms where it's served is a massive job. This year, on the advice of the consulting firm Accenture, the New York City Department of Education decided to hand the task to just three companies instead of the dozen or more that used to divvy up the work. The school system was warned by other vendors that it was too big a job and that the three selected companies had credit problems, but it went ahead anyway.

Seven months later, the school department has had to advance the delivery companies millions of dollars, fine them thousands, declare an emergency, and bring in extra firms to help. Now the contracts are under investigation and the scheme itself is under internal review—it's not clear what'll happen next year—all as Mayor Mike Bloomberg campaigns on the reforms he's introduced to the city's schools.

The new system kicked in as schools opened last fall. Right from the beginning, things went wrong. "We pretty much started to see problems the first couple of weeks," says school food director David Berkowitz. "Deliveries were starting to get delivered late. They were short more products than we would have liked." Some school staff clocked overtime to accept late deliveries. No one got sick, but in at least one instance, food that was supposed to be transported in a refrigerated truck was not.

Food for thought: Lunching at P.S. 19 in Manhattan are Akira Easton, 8; Tanika Seaton, 9; Aazja Lindsay, 8; and Christina Grady, 8.
photo: Cary Conover
Food for thought: Lunching at P.S. 19 in Manhattan are Akira Easton, 8; Tanika Seaton, 9; Aazja Lindsay, 8; and Christina Grady, 8.

Kids saw a lot of sloppy joes and PB&Js. "They had no variety," says veteran nutrition advocate Agnes Molnar of the Children's Defense Fund-New York. "Some schools had the same meals several days in a row." Parents anticipated meal options that did not exist and learned later that their kids had eaten dishes they were supposed to avoid. "A lot more kids started bringing lunch from home than used to," says Linda Levy, head of the parents' association at the East Village Community School. "The parents were suddenly finding their kids refusing to eat the school food."

After parents complained, the city declared an emergency and enlisted other delivery companies to help. Five months later, the problems have subsided but not disappeared: Chief Executive for School Support Services Marty Oestreicher says 90 percent of schools are now "on menu," but Berkowitz said in a recent interview that two delivery companies still "have more shortages than we want." Meanwhile, the school department's special commissioner for investigations says in a letter that it is investigating. It won't comment, but it's believed to be looking at whether the three original delivery firms—Driscoll Foods, Louis Foods, and Watermelons Plus—passed their inspections last summer, as well as whether the schools department has discriminated against delivery company Chef's Choice, whose director cooperated in previous investigations of the school foods office.

The timing of all this isn't great for Bloomberg and schools chancellor Joel Klein. Their efforts to remake city schools—gaining mayoral control, ending social promotion, and launching smaller high schools—are central to the mayor's re-election bid. Fixing school food was supposed to be another victory. In 2004, the Office of School Food and Nutrition Services started calling itself "SchoolFood" and hired an executive chef to improve menus, all with the aim of getting more kids to eat cafeteria food. Nutrition advocates for years have pressed the city to aggressively push school meals, which are usually cheaper and more nutritious than what kids might buy at a corner store or vending machine. "They've taken some first, first steps," says Toni Liquori, director of food and nutrition services at Food Change.

But the botched delivery scheme could reverse those gains. "They have brought in people who know what they're doing and are trying to make some changes," says Kathy Goldman, another nutrition advocate working with CDF-NY, "and when something like this happens, it just discourages kids from wanting to participate." Cafeteria statistics do not show any system-wide fall-off in kids buying lunch, but unless the city monitors the lunchroom trash, there's no way to know if kids actually eat what they buy.

There's also no way to know if the new scheme will deliver the cost savings it was supposed to. The city used to divide the school food system into 18 different contracts. The idea behind cutting that to just three contracts this year was to centralize operations—a standard theme of the Bloomberg era—and leverage the city's buying power to save a projected $5 million to $6 million.

Accenture was paid $1 million for its role in developing the food delivery plan, which included recruiting bidders. But the company says its responsibility only goes so far.

"The city makes all the final decisions on any contracts that are awarded," notes Accenture spokesman Peter Soh, "and they manage those contracts and the implementation of those contracts once awarded." Overall, Accenture's $12 million of work for city schools is supposed to save the department $70 million overall—assuming, of course, that other new procurement practices don't hit costly snags like food deliveries did.

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