July 11, 2013Sodexo will remain the Grosse Pointe Public School System's cafeteria food service provider for the 2013-2014 school year, following the GPPSS Board of Education's 6-1 approval of a one-year contract at its June regular meeting.
It's a contract Sodexo has held since 2005, when the district first started outsourcing its food services program. During that time, the district has rebid the contract four times, including each of the last three years, as mandated from the state.
For the 2013-2014 school year, according to Chris Fenton, deputy superintendent of business affairs, four proposal requests were sent out — to Aramark, Chartwells, Continental and Sodexo. Of the four, he received only one response, Sodexo's.
"We have a very challenging food program for a number of reasons," Fenton said, adding that one of the biggest challenges is a lack of program participation.
Most of Sodexo's other 19 districts it currently serves in Michigan — including Birmingham Public Schools, L'Anse Creuse Public Schools and Troy Community Schools — have participation rates two to three times higher than Grosse Pointe, which averages about 407,000 meals served a year, he said.
While Sodexo's lunch plans are relatively cheap, $2.75 for elementary and $3 for middle and high school, a variety of outside options in the areas around Grosse Pointe North and South contribute to the low participation at the high school level. And none of the local restaurants need to comply with the kind of state and federal regulations as Sodexo, whose offerings are restricted by the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.
North and South also have an open campus for all students, allowing them the freedom to venture outside of school to pursue those other, often more expensive options.
Another contributing factor at all levels, one that's "kind of out of hand" in Grosse Pointe, Fenton said, is the fundraisers and competitive food sales from student groups and other organizations held during lunch hours. Like the restaurants, these groups don't need to comply with any state or federal mandates.
"And the dilemma becomes, we have our boosters and student groups, they raise a lot of money. And we like when they're raising money, it's a good thing," Fenton said. "We want to work cooperatively with them, but at the same time we've got a real problem. And our problem is different than Troy, Birmingham, L'Anse Creuse."
Considering the competitive nature of these groups to Sodexo, the company has still cooperated with them and allowed the sales to continue, Fenton said. In the past eight years it has also expanded and improved its menu, trying to make food choices more accessible and enticing for students.
"We are very satisfied with Sodexo in terms of their performance," Fenton said. "They've done a number of things to entice the menus. If you look at our menus that we have now compared to when we ran the program 10 years ago, it's really exceptional what they're able to do."
Despite those enticements, some still see a need for improvements. In the past, Tom Jakubiec, board trustee and the lone dissenter on the vote, has brought forth complaints, both personal and from conversations within the community, about excessive lines and waiting times during lunch, quality of food, and food choices.
He viewed the latest rebid as an opportunity to seek improvement elsewhere. Instead, at least for one more year, he just hopes Sodexo can continue to make strides with its program for the district.
"I would just encourage you to really take a good look at the business plan moving forward and how are you maintaining quality control? how are you forecasting demand" and how are you making sure that every day there's presentable options that meet the needs?" Jakubiec said. "I'm anxiously looking for great strides in the area of cafeteria services."