School board will demand answers on food service woes at March meeting

School board will demand answers on food service woes at March meeting

Picard: We might need to replace Aramark

NORTH PROVIDENCE – Members of the North Providence School Committee plan to ask tough questions of those who run the food service program in local schools. They say complaints continue to come in.

School Committee Vice Chairwoman Gina Picard told The Breeze she and others plan to question Aramark representatives at the school board’s March 1 meeting about why officials are still fielding complaints from students and parents on the quality and performance of the food service.

The biggest issue for Picard is that some students at the elementary level aren’t getting the lunch they order when they arrive at school. Though Aramark officials previously blamed the problem on students taking a different lunch than they ordered, she said she checked with a principal who implemented a token system for meals and found that’s not the case. She said the problems persisted even after a Breeze story on the situation a month ago.

It’s “not acceptable” that students who order a cheeseburger or hot dog for lunch are instead getting a bagel or something else, said Picard.

“That’s not OK,” she said. “If they’re paying for their lunch, they should get the lunch they pay for.”

Picard said she disagrees with Supt. Melinda Smith that Aramark officials have been responsive to concerns, saying she’s asking Finance Director John McNamee to research whether school officials can still go out to bid for a new food service provider for the 2016-2017 school year.

“I’d love to be able to look at different companies and options,” she said.

The schools currently have a contract with Aramark as the state’s low bidder on food service.

Other complaints have included food not looking appetizing and students having to wait for their meals, said Picard.

Karen Cutler, of Aramark’s media relations team, said she looked into the issues brought up by Picard and said they’ve “been resolved.”

“We implemented a new meal ordering system at the elementary schools, and there were a few initial hiccups as students got adjusted to using the new system,” she said. “Many of them did not remember what they ordered and took the wrong meal. We quickly adjusted the process, and it is now working well.”

The issues with Aramark’s food and service are frustrating for students and staff, said Picard, and act as a hindrance to teaching and learning. She said she doesn’t care what the reason is for the right food not being in place when students get to the line, adding that she doesn’t think parents should have to go to school officials before issues are addressed.

Smith this week said she was told that Aramark representatives were adding lunches to “avoid the error from occurring again.” She said she hasn’t received any complaints since she addressed the problems with the company a month ago.

“I will continue to monitor the situation with the building principals,” she said.

As various accusations fly, a former employee at Aramark Food Service said she quit the job after seeing a worker take food away from two students who were behind on their payments for school lunches.

Aramark officials are denying that allegation, saying the former employee “may be disgruntled” and that the food service provider doesn’t take food away from children.

Former employee Johanna Morrison said she quit her job after one kindergarten student had his lunch, consisting of waffles and a mini cheese omelet, taken back. The child started eating his omelet in line, she said, and when he reached the employee who rings up the meal, the employee saw that he owed money and took the lunch from the student, instead giving him a plain cheese sandwich.

“It did not seem right to do this to an innocent child,” said Morrison in an email. “They could have told (him) that tomorrow you will be getting a cheese sandwich and give a note to them to take home to their parent and explain the procedures.”

Morrison said she told Aramark food service director Monique Herard that the situation wasn’t right, and that “it’s like taking candy from a baby.”

Herard referred comment to Cutler, who said she reached out to the local team of North Providence food service workers, and they dismissed the accusation from Morrison.

“All we do is enforce the district’s policy,” she said. “It would never be our policy to take someone’s food away from them.”

When students have overdue balances, “we never turn a child away,” she said. All cases of overdue meal bills are subject to a series of steps that include multiple reminders and letters home, she said. When all avenues are expended with a student, they are given an uncooked cheese sandwich.

“That’s really a very last resort,” she said.

Morrison said she approached Herard many times to tell her that students weren’t getting the lunches they ordered. She said she even brought stickers for teachers to give students to show which lunch they ordered, but it didn’t work. She backed Cutler’s assertion that students routinely get into line and then see something other than what they ordered and want it, which leads to other students not getting what they ordered, she said.

Picard said there’s no excuse for not having the food every child orders in place for them to pick up at lunchtime. If that means ordering plenty of extra meals, that’s what needs to happen, she said.