Should You Outsource Your Food Service Program?

By Joetta Sack-Min

It sounds tempting, especially in tough fiscal times: Hand over all the responsibility for food service management -- that byzantine department that usually operates in the red -- to a private company promising to provide nutritious and appetizing meals, keep up with increasingly complex regulations, and perhaps even make a profit. After all, schools are in the business of educating students, not wrestling with commodities markets.

Of course, it’s never that easy. While privatization, or outsourcing, has worked well for some districts for years, the mere mention of the dreaded “O” word may set off protests from employees, unions, and parents and divide the administrative staff.

It’s a tough decision for any district, but outsourcing may become more attractive because of the changing nature of the food service field, says Katie Wilson, the president-elect of the School Nutrition Association and food service director for the Onalaska, Wis., school district. As food costs rise and regulations become more complex, many food service directors are retiring and fewer people with the right mix of business and nutrition skills want to work in a school district.

“Any district has to weigh the pros and cons, and ask what are their equipment needs, financial needs, and do they have the resources in house to hire a professional director?” says Wilson. “Outsourcing has a place in school nutrition programs if the need is there and a district can’t find other sources.”

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