A growing number of Michigan public school students who once disdainfully referred to their school cafeterias' food as "mystery meat" are now eating their wordsalong with delicious and nutritious meals from Chartwells, a private, for-profit food service management company.
Last February marked the birth of Chartwells, a division of the United Kingdom-based Compass Group. Compass, the world's largest provider of food services, does an annual $6.9 billion worth of business worldwide from its divisions serving the education, health care, sports arena, and corporate markets.
Chartwellsformed from Compass's purchase of food service provider Canteen Services earlier this yearcurrently has contracts with over 80 Michigan school districts and expects that number to increase by three to six districts each year.
Why are so many districts privatizing their food service operations? According to the Michigan Department of Education, the state's 663 traditional and charter public school authorities served over 115 million lunches in the 1997-98 school year, drawing in revenues of $346 million. This enormous component of school management diverts valuable time, personnel, and money from the primary mission of a school district, which is education. Private companies such as Chartwells deliver high-quality services at lower cost while allowing schools to focus their full attention on their core mission.
The size of the Compass Group gives Chartwells the cost advantages of volume purchasing, plus the additional resources it needs to concentrate on customer service. The company soon will hire a professional chef for the Great Lakes region to enhance food quality and develop even more new recipes.
Chartwells' cafeteria services even differ according to students' grade levels. According to Regional Vice President Howard Leikert, elementary school students receive special attention regarding nutrition and balance, while middle and high school students receive greater variety in their meal selections. He says elementary students typically have a choice of one or two entrées, while high school students receive four or five entrée choices plus a la carte options. Often, high schools experience "customer-focused display cooking," where students pick stir-fry vegetables and meat, having it prepared by a Chartwells cook as they watch.
Are schools satisfied with the Chartwells approach? Consider just three success stories.
Rockford Public Schools, located outside of Grand Rapids, has a seven-year history with Canteen/Chartwells. "We don't subsidize the lunch program," notes Assistant Superintendent Ron Nynehuis. It remains "self-supporting" while "maintaining relatively low lunch prices." Menu choices like fast-food style burgers, chicken wraps, and Asian-style stir fry are some of "the creative things that keep student interest," says Nynehuis.
Dennis McCrumb, superintendent of Marcellus Community Schools near Kalamazoo, recently chose Chartwells to provide his district with food service. Already he has noticed a "huge difference in quality [that is] far superior" to the previous in-house food service program. McCrumb also notes that the food program is "in the black for the first time in 10 years." Prior to Chartwells' arrival, Marcellus schools were running an annual deficit of $26,000 to $30,000 in their food service program. Chartwells wiped out the district's deficit and improved student lunches all without increasing the price of meals to district students, says McCrumb.
Muskegon Public Schools has been using a private food service provider for 19 years. When the district decided in 1997 to give another company the opportunity to win its business, Chartwells stepped up to the plate. To date, Muskegon has saved roughly $65,000 by switching to Chartwells.
This last example is instructive. Successful private companies are always fine-tuning their operations. By competitively contracting with private firms, districts place vendors in the position of having to prove themselves every dayor else lose out to a more efficient company.
Chartwells contracts have 60-day cancellation clauses so that unhappy school districts can cancel, with or without cause. The arrangements last for four years: four one-year periods with an option to renew at the end.
Performance is the key to Chartwells' success, says Leikert. "If we don't put districts into a more favorable position, we won't be in business," he adds.
Privatization, when done right, has been shown to improve quality and save valuable resources that can be used to further a school's true missioneducating children. By contracting with a food service provider such as Chartwells, districts can win the hearts of taxpayers, the stomachs of students, and the respect of their communities.