GROSSE POINTE WOODS—It's no longer unusual for schools to hire a private company to prepare lunch. One quarter of Michigan districts140 of 555use private firms to run their kitchens. But typically it's an institutional food service group, not a catering company run by one of the Midwest's top chefs.

This year, University Liggett School in Grosse Pointe Woods is using Diamondback Catering, one of Detroit's premiere catering services, for its school lunch program. And while this doesn't mean that students dine on mint-crusted rack of lamb at noontime, the move is an object lesson in privatization: Even a top catering outfit can provide better food for less money than using public employees for the same service.

Liggett headmaster Matthew Hanly said Diamondback Director and Chef Jimmy Schmidt expressed interest in the job when the school decided to replace its vendor this year.

"I was a little startled at first," Hanly said. "I had this perceptual worry. The words 'exclusive' and 'elite' are used about us all the time. I don't like to promote that."

But when Schmidt explained his interest in promoting good eating habits, and said he could compete on cost with other vendors, Hanly decided to give it a try. Diamondback Catering took over last fall.

At Liggett, which enrolls preschool through high school students, Diamondback serves fresh fruits and vegetables, reducing the need for salt and sugar that are used in large quantities in processed foods. Schmidt looks for low-fat, wholesome versions of manufactured foods he must use, rather than using the typical institutional fare served at most schools.