Dist. 59 hot lunches in jeopardy after provider backs out of contract
Thousands of students are in jeopardy of going without a hot lunch or breakfast in Elk Grove Township Elementary District 59 starting in May, when food service provider Sodexo plans to withdraw early from its contract.
Superintendent Art Fessler said Sodexo officials told the district they lost $500,000 last school year and are on track to lose another $500,000 this year if they stay on through the end of the annual contract.
Now the district is scrambling to find a new food vendor to prepare meals between May 1 and June 15, the last day of school.
State education officials told District 59 the move is unprecedented statewide.
"We have the (Illinois State Board of Education) working with us to see if we can apply pressure to Sodexo to work the remainder of the school year," said Vickie Nissen, the district's assistant superintendent of business services. "They weren't budging with me or willing to negotiate."
Larry Fullmer, a Sodexo district manager, said in an emailed statement that "unforeseen economic circumstances and operational challenges" led to the company's decision to exercise a termination clause in its contract with District 59.
While Fullmer declined to answer follow-up questions about the decision, school district officials believe the lack of an on-site food preparation kitchen in the district may be part of the reason Sodexo is leaving.
Meals are prepared off-site at a school in DuPage County, then shipped daily to District 59's 11 elementary schools and three junior high schools, located in Elk Grove Village, Mount Prospect, Des Plaines and Arlington Heights. Hot lunches are kept in "hot boxes" until they are served in the afternoon. Some students are also provided breakfast, which typically consists of cold items like cereal, officials said.
When Sodexo was awarded the district's food service contract, a company representative admitted "it was a challenge for their company to undertake food service management with no on-site kitchen," according to school board meeting minutes from April 14, 2014.
Still, school district officials said at the time Sodexo did a good deal of research before entering a bid and the company's references were excellent.
The board unanimously approved a $1.7 million contract with Sodexo for the 2014-2015 school year, a deal that renewed this school year. Sodexo's bid was only $1,739 less than the next lowest bidder.
But the agreement contains a clause that either Sodexo or the district may opt out at any time if they provide 60 days' notice.
District 59 received a hand-delivered letter from Sodexo late last week exercising that right.
School board members asked district officials Monday night whether the contract could be renegotiated in an attempt to keep Sodexo through the end of the school year. But Fessler said it can't since it's a standard contract administered through the state board of education and tied to the National School Lunch Program, which provides subsidies for free and reduced-price lunches.
"I don't think there's any way we could have avoided it," Fessler said.
More than 4,000 of the district's 6,500 students are in the free or reduced-price lunch program.
District officials say they're talking to three other vendors and hope to secure one of them to provide lunches beginning in May.
Sodexo officials said they're "committed to a smooth transition" as District 59 finds a new food service vendor.