When lunchtime bells echo down the hallways of Birmingham’s public schools, thousands of hungry students come running to gobble up dishes of spaghetti, macaroni and cheese, tacos, chicken sandwiches, fresh fruits, and salad—all prepared courtesy of a private food service provider.

Sodexho Marriott Services, the largest food and facilities management services company in North America, has served the students of this Detroit-area school district for the past seven years and also contracts with hundreds of other K-12 school districts and colleges throughout the United States and Canada.

Many districts such as Birmingham are turning to private companies to improve quality and help free up scarce resources from noninstructional uses, such as food service, so that they can be better applied toward vital instructional materials such as textbooks, classroom aids, and other equipment.

"The expenditures on our food service program used to exceed its revenue by around $150,000 a year. That shortfall had to be made up out of the district’s general fund," said Norm McGarry, chief purchasing official for Birmingham Public Schools. "Now our program is self-supporting."

Just a decade ago, only about 4% of the school districts in the country contracted with private firms for food services. Today, that figure has more than doubled and continues to grow.

David Andrejko, Sodexho Marriott’s food service director for Birmingham Public Schools, says that the key to success has been his company’s approach to food service delivery. "Our relationship with Birmingham works because we partner with schools to provide services that meet their unique needs," he said.

Officials in Birmingham schools agree. "We’re pleased with Marriott’s services," said Shirley Bryant, director of community relations for the district. "The kids now have more choices for lunch and the professional staff is terrific. We think of them as part of us."

Students are happy with the meals they receive from their privatized cafeterias, and administrators are pleased with the high quality and savings that have resulted from the private management of the schools’ food services.

"As chief purchasing official for the district, I felt a fiduciary responsibility to look at all options for providing quality food services, including privatization," noted McGarry, who also serves as the liaison between the district and Sodexho Marriott.

According to the Michigan Department of Child Nutrition, 121 school districts in Michigan contract out to private food service providers, including Sodexho Marriott and also Canteen and Aramark.

Sodexho Marriott, which takes its name from the March 1998 merger of Marriott Management Services, a subsidiary of the Marriott hotel group, and French-based Sodexho Alliance, is not the only private company providing meals to Michigan students. According to the Michigan Department of Child Nutrition, 121 school districts in Michigan contract out to private food service providers, including Sodexho Marriott and also Canteen and Aramark. The Michigan Education Association once contracted with Canteen for food services at its East Lansing headquarters.

Critics of privatized food service in public schools have raised concerns about food quality and health issues, charging that a private company will cut corners in pursuit of profits and feed unhealthy or unwholesome meals to students. School food services, say critics, are better left to the caring hands of the public sector.

Not true, says Jim Bode, Vice President of Business Development for Sodexho Marriott’s School Services Division. "We are very much in it for the kids. We view them as our customers, and there is a strong emphasis on nutrition."

While privately provided food service arrangements are not automatically free of problems, an October 17, 1996, article in The Detroit News revealed that publicly managed cafeterias have troubles of their own. The article found that eight out of ten public school cafeterias in Metro Detroit were in violation of "critical" health code provisions. In some cases, inspectors were disgusted to discover undercooked or rotten food and mice and bugs scurrying in the kitchens of district-managed cafeterias.

Problems like the above help explain the increasing reliance of schools on privately managed food services. Private companies can be closely monitored and held more immediately accountable by terminating their contracts if they violate health standards, as a 1994 joint study by the Reason Foundation and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Making Schools Work, recommends.

This competitive pressure to perform forces companies to continually strive to provide good food and quality services. "If there’s something I don’t like in the [food service] program, I have the control to alter it to better suit our district’s needs," said McGarry.

Health and safety violations, however, have not been an issue in Birmingham. According to McGarry, the district’s food service program has met this year’s brand new—and more stringent—federal school lunch nutritional guidelines for the past three years.

Privatization can both improve quality and save valuable school resources that can be used to further the education of children, as Birmingham has discovered. "My primary interest is in delivering nutritional food to the children of this district," said McGarry. "To that end, I think we are doing a great job."