School districts could save money and improve services by contracting with private companies to operate their cafeterias.

Mention the privatization of food services in the public schools and invariably this objection is raised: "If private firms take charge of the food, the children will be at risk. Private companies are interested only in profit and they really don’t care about the kids. To make money, they’ll cut corners and who knows what they would end up serving for lunch. Keep our cafeterias public, not private, because government has only the kids’ best interests in mind."

Perhaps that objection sounds plausible—until you look at the real world. The fact is that while problems have arisen in both public and private cafeterias, private ones usually have stronger incentives to prevent them from occurring in the first place and to fix them quickly when they do happen.

If you think public cafeterias are safer, you didn’t see a revealing story in The Detroit News on October 17, 1996. Headlined "Many School Cafeterias Unclean: Health Inspectors Find Mice, Bad Food At Area Sites," the article revealed that inspectors "found mice and water bugs scurrying in kitchens, rotten food, half-cooked hamburgers and cafeteria employees who couldn’t wash their hands because sinks were inaccessible . . ." in district run school cafeterias.

Eight out of ten public school cafeterias in Metro Detroit were found to be in violation of one or more critical health regulations, putting many children at risk for food-borne illnesses. Two hundred public schools—all in the Detroit area—were cited for at least six critical violations when inspectors made a sweep of the schools. Cockroaches, flies, spoiled food and staphylococcus bacteria were common.

Incredibly, a survey by The Detroit News over a three-year period found that "Hundreds of children have fallen ill from bad school food" while many others "are believed to get sick in ways that go unreported."

The problem is not peculiar to Detroit’s public schools. The same article points out that schools in New York City (and by inference, those in other big cities as well) are plagued with similar problems. Edward Stancik, a New York Special Commissioner who investigated the schools, had this to say: "School officials don’t seem to get it. Kids are getting sick, workers are untrained, food is uneatable."

By contrast nearby schools with privatized cafeterias look pretty good. The Detroit-area city of Hamtamck has, according to The Detroit News, "one of the cleanest cafeterias" in the area.

By contrast, nearby schools with privatized cafeterias look pretty good. The Detroit-area city of Hamtramck has, according to The Detroit News, "one of the cleanest cafeterias" in the area. It’s managed by the Marriott Corporation, which inspects the food service facilities it manages on a monthly basis and requires workers to take a food handling class. Cafeterias run by the Detroit public schools are inspected only once per year and typically require only the managers (not food service workers) to be trained in safe handling of food.

Marriott is one of many firms doing business in Michigan public school cafeterias. Two other large contractors are ARA Services and Canteen. Central Michigan University subcontracted the work of about 90 food service workers to ARAMARK, saving the school more than $1 million annually and maintaining high quality service.

An industry estimate cited in a November 1994 joint study of the Reason Foundation and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy puts the number of privatized public school cafeterias nationwide at approximately 10% of all districts, excluding small rural districts. A U.S. Department of Agriculture study reported in 1994 that Michigan ranked fourth among the 50 states in the number of food-service management contracts—with 73 school districts having privatized food service. A law passed by the legislature that same year made it much easier for school districts to pursue this option, and many have. Still, the great majority of Michigan public school and university cafeterias are not privatized—representing a huge potential market for firms able to offer lower costs and improved service.

The Michigan Education Association (MEA), the state’s largest union of janitors, cooks, bus drivers and teachers, officially opposes the privatization of school support services. But since the Mackinac Center revealed in 1994 that the MEA was contracting with a nonunion company for food service at its own East Lansing headquarters, its credibility on the issue has vanished.

Two studies, Doing More With Less and Making Schools Work discuss the outsourcing of noninstructional services and are available from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy for $5.00 post paid.

Private food service companies are usually very successful at what they do because they know they can lose the business quickly if they turn in poor performance. And, in many places, they feel the competition from nearby fast-food restaurants that attract students in the higher grades. Says Paul Kelly, business manager for the Pocono Mountain School Board in Sweetwater, Pennsylvania, "Companies can offer more resources. You get the clout and economies of scale in purchasing. You get research and insights into products such as milk and biodegradable materials."

How can a school district measure the performance of a private food service contractor? The Reason Foundation/Mackinac Center study offered many areas of measurement, including nutritional value of meals served, meal variety and quality, food preparation practices, condition of storage and service areas, sanitary conditions and practices, employee training, cost per meal, use of donated commodities, and bottom-line financial results.

As schools are asked to take on greater responsibilities for the education of children, how best to marshal existing resources to make every dollar go further presents both challenges and opportunities. To make the best of the situation, however, school officials, parents and teachers should expunge any lingering notion they may have that only government employees provide safety and quality in the cafeterias.