Meeting students’ basic food and nutrition requirements is an essential role of public schools and critical to student learning. Yet as with other support services in schools – such as transportation and janitorial services – school boards or school administrators who are worried about the bottom line may turn to outside companies to manage or replace in-house district school food programs. In 2004, about 70% of Pennsylvania school districts self-operated their food service programs. But by 2019, that number dropped to 47%, as more districts chose management companies to run their school food programs.
This report relies on a mix of rigorous statistical analysis and interview-based qualitative research and finds that contracting out food services – their management or the entire operation – does not yield the financial benefits school districts are promised by contractors.
We used quantitative methods to examine data on food service revenues and expenditures in Pennsylvania school districts from 2006 to 2019.
- When analyzing financials from districts who outsourced in this time period, we found that food service management companies provide no cost savings over and above in-house programs.
- Food service management companies do have lower expenditures than in-house programs when they manage and employ their own cafeteria staff, but these districts also experienced a decline in food service revenue that wipes out any financial benefit to the district.
- Food service companies who only manage a cafeteria and rely on district-employed staff have higher expenditures than fully in-house programs.
In our qualitative analysis, we used interviews to explore the operation and impact of one of several networks of self-operated school district food service program directors formed to improve districts’ nutrition programs – the Pittsburgh Regional Food Service Directors (PRFSD) network.
- Through organizing bulk purchases for multiple districts, and building relationships with vendors over many years, PRFSD districts with self-run food programs achieve bulk cost savings and can try new products at reasonable costs.
- PRFSD participants report multiple downsides to contracting out. These include: for-profit management companies pocket the profit, rather than reinvest it back into the program like in-house programs do; first-year guarantees from management companies make contracting out appear more attractive, but then companies can back away from these guarantees after the first year; contractors often tout decreased workload on the district, but nearly half of food service directors’ responsibilities remain in place after contracting out.
- PRFSD participants also report invaluable peer learning through their network, including about constantly changing nutritional requirements and how to meet students’ and districts’ needs.
Implications for school districts considering outsourcing food service management or entire operations.
Food service vendors seeking new contracts routinely claim significant savings for districts with contracting out. Our research shows that the numbers do not back up those claims. One reason for this is simple: private food service companies seek to make a profit. This adds additional costs to food services since districts that self-provide do not extract any profit.
Another important consideration for school districts considering contracting out is a potential loss of “control” over the food options offered to students. With in-house food services, districts and food service directors retain the freedom to align food service fully with their overall educational mission and concern with the health of students.
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