After years of complaints by parents about the quality of school meals and money being wasted, the Napa Valley Unified School District has decided to drop its longtime food contractor, Sodexo.
District officials attributed the decision to part with Sodexo — the world’s second largest catering company that has managed NVUSD’s food service program for three decades — to declining student participation in school lunches and ballooning deficits in the food program.
Eight years ago, nearly 70 percent of NVUSD students ate school meals, based on data from the district’s business office. That percentage plummeted to just over 50 percent in recent years.
Another bad sign, according to Assistant Superintendent for Business Services Wade Roach, was the tepid participation of low-income students who qualify for free and reduced-cost lunches — most of whom are Hispanic — despite the program being the only food option for many of them during the school day.
“These are the children that need to be fed the most,” said parent Laura Miller, whose children attend Napa Valley Language Academy. “That’s what got me passionate about staying committed to this cause — for the many kids and families who don’t have a voice.”
Katherine Jalaty, whose child attends Redwood Middle School, said: “A lot of us aren’t fighting for our own kids, but for the kids who come to school with no lunch and don’t have breakfast and don’t have anything after school” to eat.
Roach told the school board Thursday evening that the district’s food service program has been losing money for the past three years, with deficits as high as $600,000. He said that the only thing keeping the program from finishing in the red each year was a provision that required Sodexo to make up the difference.
“The deficits were not sustainable for the district or for Sodexo,” said Roach.
Particularly not for a district facing declining enrollment and multi-million dollar budget deficits. NVUSD has been looking for ways to trim costs, and recently convinced more than 60 of its employees — mostly teachers — to take early retirement.
Concerned with the lunch program’s financial imbalance, the district asked for a Fiscal Crisis Management Assessment Team to come from Sacramento and complete a study of the nutrition program. It made numerous recommendations, including improving kitchen facilities, lowering labor costs, and finding ways to get students interested in buying school lunch again.
Ultimately, NVUSD decided the best way to do that was dropping Sodexo, which will cease managing food services at the end of this school year in June.
Starting next year, the district will run the program in-house — something the vast majority of school districts in California already do with school lunches.
“We are going to start the process of becoming a self-operating district,” said Roach, who added the district will hire a director of nutrition in the coming months to oversee the program.
Sodexo representatives were not at Thursday’s school board meeting to comment on the decision. In earlier discussions about the lunch program, company representatives downplayed their role, while pointing out that the food is prepared and served by district employees.
“We’ve added value,” said Sodexo District Manager Martha O’Rourke last year. “It’s a district program. We’re hired to support the district. We’re more in an advisement capacity.”
None of the trustees objected to dropping Sodexo. Board member Robb Felder said: “I think we’re going in the right direction.”
Miller, Jalaty and other parents were delighted to hear the news that Sodexo is going away. An ardent group led by former Vintage High School teacher and parent Katie Aaron, the parents had lobbied for just such a change, saying the meals being served to students were “deplorable” and unhealthy, as well as pre-made and processed, much like fast food.
“Ending our contract with Sodexo will open up opportunities that were heavily controlled by [them] for 35 years,” said Aaron, who spent seven years lobbying the district to stop using the multinational corporation headquartered in France.
Parents had repeatedly complained at board and committee meetings about menu items like the “Galaxy Pizza,” served multiple times a week for lunch. They said elementary students called it the “sweaty bag pizza” because it is heated up in plastic.
Parents had also pointed to nutrition concerns stemming from school meals.
Using data produced by Sodexo, parents said that many lunches contained high sodium levels per serving, such as the Asian stir-fry with chicken and vegetables over whole grain rice (1,744 mg). USDA nutrition guidelines recommend adults consume less than 2,400 mg of sodium in an entire day.
They also cited neighboring school districts and their self-operating programs that demonstrated good food could be served without being expensive.
After the meeting, Superintendent Patrick Sweeney credited the parents for their involvement in bringing Sodexo’s role to an end.
“Obviously, the parents helped us with lots of things,” he said. “We did visits of other school districts to see their food programs. They have served on the health and wellness committees. They brought up some things that needed attention.”