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Rock Hill schools urged to be more open in plans to outsource lunches

A Rock Hill school board member and a parent want district officials to be more open about what two companies vying to take over the business of feeding thousands of students daily propose to do.

But Associate Superintendent Anthony Cox said state law requires government agencies to protect companies' competitive practices during a selection process.

At a time when people are concerned about school nutrition and soaring obesity rates among children, it’s critical for families to be in the loop, school board member Jane Sharp said.

Parent Debra Van Aller Dahlin agreed, adding that processed foods, known to be unhealthy and common in school cafeterias, could harm students.

“Our state is one of the fattest,” she said. “Kids are fat ...There should be some sort of overview, some information about what’s proposed. I want to know that they’re moving away from processed foods.”

International food service corporations Sodexo and Chartwells have applied to take over Rock Hill schools’ food operations. Cox and the companies declined to provide details about the proposals.

Once the district hires a firm, officials will release details to the public, said Cox, adding that the practice is common among school systems.

Eyeing a move out of the kitchen, Rock Hill school officials plan to outsource the district's food services, which include breakfast and lunch programs.

Officials have said they hope an outside company specializing in food service can run the district’s operation more efficiently.

France-based Sodexo, and Chartwells, a division of the Compass Group in Britain, were the only firms that responded to a request for proposals advertised in December.

They are two of the largest food service companies in the world and manage food operations for hundreds of U.S. schools. Sodexo runs food services for York schools.

Rock Hill school leaders plan to award a contract as early as June 1.

The decision is largely in the hands of a seven-member committee evaluating the companies’ proposals behind closed doors. The committee originally included five people – a principal from an elementary, middle and high school, the food service director and the district finance director.

At Sharp’s urging, Superintendent Lynn Moody agreed to add parent and community voices.

Sharp and school board member Jim Vining said they were surprised to learn that the two people added to represent those views have close ties to the district.

One, Tammy Blankenship, is an administrative assistant in the district office. The other, Sylvia Echols, worked for the district as a co-principal and instructional coach until last year.

“I don’t think it represents the broad range of opinions and experience we need,” Sharp said. “I would rather they have four or five parents on the committee ... who are more independent, without past or present association with the district as an employee.

“I feel a little bit misled.”

Vining said he was “amazed” to hear how the committee was comprised.

“I don’t think it meets the test of community representation,” he said. “About half the committee should be people without that close a tie to the district.”

Still, Vining said he values the committee members’ judgment and expects them to “make the right decision.”

Cox said officials asked “seven or eight” parents who don’t work for the district to join, but they were unavailable.

Chance for a fresh start

The issue surfaces as U.S. leaders, nutrition experts and parents urge schools to improve the quality of school food by doing away with the processed, fast food fare dominating school lunch menus across York County and the rest of the country.

Processed foods considered unhealthy generally contain preservatives and excess sodium and saturated fat.

Processed meats including bacon, hot dogs and deli meats have been linked to chronic illnesses such as diabetes, obesity, heart disease and cancer.

New federal rules, taking effect this year, are aimed at improving school food in the long run. They require schools to double the amount of fruits and vegetables served, increase whole grains, serve only low-fat or fat-free milk and limit trans fats. By 2022, schools must cut the amount of sodium served in half.

Sharp and Van Aller Dahlin see switching food services as an opportunity to make a change for the better.

For example, they suggested the district could explore opportunities to partner with local farmers to get fresher, more nutritious food in the lunch line.

Van Aller Dahlin, who sits on the School Improvement Council at Ebinport Elementary, where her son attends fourth grade, envisions a broader program that spawns school gardens and in-depth nutrition education.

Van Aller Dahlin said she asked the district to allow her join the evaluation committee, but was told the group was full.

The lunch business

Rock Hill schools’ food department runs like others in public school systems across the country – as a self-sustaining business.

The department makes money from students who pay full price and from the federal government, which subsidizes meals for students from low-income homes.

Roughly 58 percent of Rock Hill schools’ 17,300 students eat school lunches, according to district figures. Food services had expenses of $6.87 million last school year, according to district figures.

Officials have been exploring the idea of outsourcing for about a year.

If Rock Hill outsources food services, the district would join 14 others in the state.

More information

A seven-member committee chosen by district officials is evaluating proposals from two international food service corporations competing to take over Rock Hill schools’ food services.

The committee has met several times and plans to send a recommendation by Friday to be reviewed by state officials.

The committee members are:

Elaine Bilton, Rock Hill schools finance director

Crystal Guyton, India Hook Elementary principal

Jean Dickson, Rawlinson Road Middle principal

James Blake, Northwestern High principal

Chad Mitchell, district food services director

Tammy Blankenship, central office administrative assistant and parent

Sylvia Echols, former Rock Hill Child Development Center co-principal and instruction coach