BRANDON — Next year, students at the Whiting Village School will probably no longer have to pack their lunches.
Instead, a new foodservice contract that is being negotiated within the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union (RNeSU) could allow Whiting Village School for the first time to offer its students nutritious, in-school breakfasts and lunches.
The contract will also offer the chance for the other RNeSU elementary schools (Leicester Central School, Neshobe School, Barstow Memorial School, Lothrop Elementary School and Sudbury Country School) to save money on their food programs.
Recent changes in the United States Department of Agriculture’s foodservice regulations required all schools that contract with an outside provider for student meals to update their contracts and put them out to bid again next year. The state released bid documents for the contracts early in May, and all schools must have the contracts squared away by Aug. 1.
At the same time, Neshobe School was looking for ways to save money on its costly in-house school lunch program. Over the past eight years, said Principal Judy Pulsifer, as the school has tried to incorporate healthier and more local food, the district-sponsored program’s price has skyrocketed.
According to Pulsifer, in budget calculations for the coming school year, Neshobe would have required a $30,000 contribution from the community to pay for the program, up from about $20,000 last year.
With the law in place, and Whiting’s lack of a program and potential savings at Neshobe and the other five RNeSU elementary schools in mind, district officials decided to explore a shared food service contract. (Otter Valley Union High School, the only other school in the district, does not contract out its meal service, and did not have to revise its meal system.)
“The schools decided ‘Let’s all go out to bid together,’” said RNeSU Superintendent John Castle. “We provided the support and staff (to develop the contract).”
Three companies made offers on the contract, and a board with representation from each elementary school evaluated two of the bids — those of Vermont-based Abbey Group and nationwide foodservice company Sodexo — according to a rubric that they had developed. After evaluation of both offers, the board found the Abbey Group’s bid to be the highest scoring.
Castle said that there were factors other than cost that played into the evaluation of the offers, including Leicester Central School’s satisfactory experience with the company over the past three years.
“The Abbey Group has a track record of working closely with schools and integrating local food and farm-to-plate initiatives,” said Castle. “They’re very accommodating in that regard.”
Although each school has already voted individually to approve the Abbey Group’s bid, Pittsford’s vote was invalidated by a revision to the contract, in which some details were altered. RNeSU business manager Brenda Fleming cautioned that, although it seems unlikely that Pittsford’s board will change its vote before the final vote next Monday, there is still the chance that the contract could be overturned.
“We’re very excited about the prospects, but it’s not a done deal,” said Fleming.
If approved, the joint contract will be a financial boon to the schools and RNeSU as a whole. As it stands, the district subsidizes the shortfalls in the meal programs at Lothrop, Barstow and Leicester, while neither Sudbury nor Whiting currently have meal programs. According to Pulsifer, Neshobe’s program was subsidized by the community to the tune of $19,400 last year and would have asked for almost $30,000 this year.
Fleming estimated that the contract, as it stands, would save RNeSU a total of about $35,200 even though it will add two new lunch programs. After revenue that the meals bring in, the Abbey Group’s bid will have a net cost of about $12,300 annually, which would be split proportionally between the schools in the district.
For Whiting Elementary, this means that the school’s annual contribution to the program would be $370, which Castle said would never have happened if Whiting had tried to form a meal program on its own.
“For a small school, it would have taken a fairly large subsidy to create a program,” said Castle.
The Whiting school building also lacks a kitchen, so the food will have to be prepared offsite and delivered at mealtimes. On its own, this situation would have made it financially almost impossible for the school to start its own program. But within a joint contract, the school was able to get a favorable deal.
“By consolidating into one program, we become a better, more marketable product for vendors,” said Fleming.
Students at Whiting Elementary — and, in recent years, at Sudbury Country School — have been responsible for bringing their own meals, which Castle said can be difficult for poorer families.
“We want students to have access to free or reduced-price breakfast or lunch,” said Castle.
Whiting Principal Donn Marcus said that if the contract goes through, the coming year will serve as a trial for the new system.
“It’s an option that parents and children will consider when thinking about their nutritional needs for the day,” he said.
Marcus said he thinks that the new offering will be well received.
“(The Abbey Group) is committed to buying locally, so that will be a selling point,” he said. “It’s also the convenience of having school meals.”
And an additional $370 certainly won’t make or break the school’s budget.
“It’s a pretty good deal,” said Marcus.
For Neshobe’s school board, the decision to vote for an outside contract was tougher. But something had to be done about the finances, said Pulsifer, and it became clear that pursuing the joint contract would have a significant impact on the school’s finances — if the contract is approved, the school’s portion of the meal program would cost around $4,000.
The switch to an outside food provider means that the school has to let its foodservice workers go next school year, but one of the conditions of the contract was that these employees would have first option when the Abbey Group is hiring people for the new foodservice plan.
“This was a very difficult decision,” said Pulsifer. “We were looking at how we can be cost effective and trying to do local vendors.”
Fleming said that, if the contract is approved and proves to be a success, the schools will have the option of using it for up to five years, at which point the schools must put the contract out to bid again. But she noted that each school must renew the contract every year, meaning that the schools are only voting on a one-year commitment.
“We’re hoping for it to be successful,” she said. “But in the event that there are irreconcilable issues or problems, we have options.”
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at firstname.lastname@example.org.