U-46 considers outsourcing meal prep for elementary schools
Elgin Area School District U-46 officials are considering doing away with a 30-year-old commissary that prepares meals for elementary school students and outsourcing the food service.
The commissary, inside Eastview Middle School in Bartlett, prepares between 14,000 and 18,000 meals daily for distribution to the district's 40 elementary schools across three counties. U-46 middle schools and high schools prepare their owns meals on-site.
Administrators propose awarding the food service contract to Preferred Meals System -- the sole bidder -- potentially saving the district more than $1 million over three years.
Preferred Meals serves school districts statewide. If approved by the school board, the service would cost U-46 nearly $4.8 million in the first year of the contract starting this fall, about $5.4 million for the 2016-17 school year, and roughly $5.5 million for the 2017-18 school year.
For the first year at least, the commissary would remain operational, but the goal is to eventually phase it out, said Jeff King, U-46 chief operations officer.
"There's about a dozen (employees)," King said. "About half of them will be reassigned. The other half will stay there."
Most of the commissary workers are full-time employees, and those being reassigned would be transferred to other school sites where there are openings, he added.
"There are still things that we will have to do on our own," King said. "The food will have to be brought into that facility and broken down into meal components and loaded onto the trucks."
Breakfast and lunch meals are packaged the day before and loaded onto six 22-foot trucks that deliver to the elementary schools early each morning.
Officials also are considering having Preferred Meals distribute the food -- built into the cost in years two and three of the contract.
"We currently perform the service. We package and we distribute," King said. "The total savings going this route would still be (more than) $1 million over the three years of the contract, even if the distribution stayed in-house with our employees doing it."
School board member Veronica Noland at a recent board meeting questioned why there was only one vendor bidding for the contract.
"Have we tested any of the meals or done any focus groups with the meals? Because I'm concerned that we are going to put all our eggs in one basket," she said.
Claudie Phillips, U-46 director of food and nutrition services, said the district has been purchasing milk components from the vendor for the past three years.
"For the majority of our food items, we package those ourselves," she added. "In the event that we are out of stock or a product doesn't come in, we have a backup where we purchase those products already packaged from this vendor."
Phillips said companies participating in vending services must be certified by the Illinois Children Nutrition Program for processing commodities for schools.
Officials now are looking into why there were no other bidders for the contract.
Noland also questioned whether there are plans to do away with the commissary equipment if the board chooses to outsource meals.
"What if, at the end of these three years, we are not happy with this?" she said. "Can we return to what we had or are we going to be obligated to finding a vendor no matter what?"
King said the aging freezer and refrigerator at the facility would need to be replaced and their capacity expanded in a couple of years, if the district were to continue using the commissary. The estimated cost to replace commissary equipment could run anywhere from $750,000 to $1 million.
"It's a very cramped operation currently," he said. "There would be probably a cost to going back 100 percent. I don't know of anybody else in the Chicagoland area to have their own central cooking location because most schools aren't big enough to do it."
The school board will review the matter at its June 15 meeting.