During its regularly-scheduled meeting on May 11, the Floyd County School Board made a change to the district’s food service program. Following a request for proposals this spring, the School Board voted unanimously to accept the only resulting bid, from Pennsylvania-based vendor The Nutrition Group.
Superintendent Dr. John Wheeler first floated the idea of outsourcing the school district’s nutrition plan during a School Board meeting in February, during which a representative from The Nutrition Group made a presentation to board members about how the contractor operates. Montgomery County Public Schools transitioned to using The Nutrition Group last year, the representative explained, and Carroll County is also a customer. Currently, the Nutrition Group serves 243 school districts across six states.
Wheeler explained that the impetus behind switching up how Floyd County feeds its students—currently, food service workers are employed directly by the school district, instead of contracted by a vendor like the Nutrition Group—is a low “take rate” among students. Participation in the county’s free and reduced lunch program has dropped, and not enough students buy breakfast or lunch each day to make the school meals program profitable. “We’re not going in the direction we want to go,” Wheeler told the School Board during its February meeting.
In the words of the Nutrition Group representative, “We don’t want to see packers,” meaning students who bring their lunches from home. After being in Carroll County one year, he told the School Board, revenue for that county’s food service program increased 13%. The goal of a vendor like The Nutrition Group is to cut costs by purchasing food in bulk from corporate vendors, leveraging the fact that all of The Nutrition Group’s customers collectively have more buying power than each school district individually.
Vendors such as The Nutrition Group also implement procedures that increase efficiency and consistency of production, the representative said, and the vendor makes efforts to market the school lunch program to students, to make it a more attractive option.
Following The Nutrition Group’s initial presentation, School Board member Gene Bishop pushed back on the idea that the county’s food needed improvement. “I haven’t heard one thing about having poor food in Indian Valley…they seem to think they have great food,” he said.
He also expressed concerns about whether district employees would retain their state retirement benefits after becoming employees of the vendor, rather than of the county.
Bishop emphasized the importance to Floyd folks of sourcing food locally, and asked The Nutrition Group representative from where the vendor’s food would come. The spokesperson said the nearest distribution hub for the vendor The Nutrition Group uses is located in Johnson City, Tennessee. But he defended the quality of the vendor’s food, saying, “Our programs are very driven toward fresh and raw as much as possible.”
The county’s food system runs at a deficit every single year. During the School Board’s May meeting, during which board members had the opportunity to ask questions about The Nutrition Group’s proposal, School Board Vice-Chair Laura LeRoy said, “The bottom line is…we have to increase participation in our programs because the state is telling us we need to do that.”
According to Wheeler, outsourcing food service to The Nutrition Group is projected to save the district at minimum $50,000 per year. The Nutrition Group has projected a modest 4.6% increase in student participation for the coming year—revenues could increase if the program performs above those expectations or the costs of implementing the new program are lower than budgeted.
With regard to the potential savings, Wheeler said, “Obviously that’s not my objective; my objective is to provide food.”
The Nutrition Group, in consultation with the School Board, will hire a food service director who will oversee existing employees. The contract to which the School Board agreed on May 11 is a one-year contract, after which time the Board will have the opportunity to review The Nutrition Group’s performance. The contract was effective July 1.
In other School Board news, the board decided during a closed session of its June 15 meeting to renew Superintendent John Wheeler’s employment contract for another four years, through June 30, 2024. Wheeler was appointed to a three-year term as superintendent in March of 2017.
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