Lunch meals served at Burgess-Peterson Academy in Atlanta on Friday, April 19, 2019. Atlanta Public Schools will switch its food-service provider next school year. AJC file photo by EMILY HANEY / emily.haney@ajc.com
Photo: Emily Haney
Photo: Emily Haney

Atlanta to get new school lunch provider again

Atlanta Public Schools will have its third food-service vendor in four years, prompting another round of upheaval for hundreds of cafeteria workers.

Arizona-based company Southwest Foodservice Excellence will provide breakfast and lunch to Atlanta students next school year. The school board this month approved the one-year contract, with the option to renew it four times.

The company will replace Aramark Educational Services, which has provided food service the past two years. Aramark stepped in after Sodexo Operations abruptly terminated services in 2017.

The new vendor means a new employer for workers who prepare and dish up students’ meals. Aramark notified the Georgia Department of Labor it will terminate 416 jobs, including 353 union positions, as a result of losing the contract.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1644, which represents the union employees, said Southwest Foodservice Excellence “has committed to keeping every worker and maintaining their current level of benefits.”

But the union, whose representatives had asked APS to retain Aramark, remains alarmed by the frequent disruptions and instability experienced by its members.

“We cannot continue to shortchange our students by routing vendors in and out under the same broken system,” said Humeta Embry, the local union’s executive director, in a written statement.

Superintendent Meria Carstarphen acknowledged that recent years brought several switches.

“APS knows given that all that we have going on, changing a food vendor after we just were forced to have to change a food vendor is the last thing that we wanted to do,” she told board members at a meeting this month.

But she said the district was required by law to go through a competitive bid process for the contract this year. Three companies responded, including Aramark. Southwest Foodservice Excellence was selected based on factors such as cost, experience, taste tests, training and plans to increase student participation.

The estimated cost of next school year’s contract with Southwest Foodservice Excellence is $20.15 million. Its proposal would cost APS about 23 cents less per meal than Aramark’s plan, according to the district.

This year’s Aramark contract was estimated at $24 million, according to school board documents from March 2018.

Southwest Foodservice Excellence currently does not work in any other public school district in the state, according to the Georgia Department of Education. That prompted concern from some, who cautioned the board against choosing an “unknown, unproven” company.

The company was founded in 2004 and works exclusively in K-12 schools, according to its website.

It’s a big operation to provide meals to Atlanta students. The 52,000-student district serves millions of meals each year at dozens of schools. Most of Georgia’s public school districts use their own employees to prepare food. APS is one of only two districts to hire a contractor this year, along with about 50 charter and nontraditional schools, according to the state.

A representative for Southwest Foodservice Excellence declined to comment until paperwork with APS is finalized.

The company did make wage and benefit commitments to APS as part of an agreement hammered out in the days before the school board authorized the contract. The new vendor agreed “to make job offers to all existing employees with current, unexpired and acceptable background checks,” according to the document obtained this week by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through an open-records request.

The company said it would adopt a 2 percent wage increase in August and review medical and retirement benefits. It said it would adopt the employee discipline and grievance procedures included in the current union contract as well as sick and paid-time-off policies.

“We are cautiously optimistic that we will be able to have a seamless process in terms of labor relations and more importantly, in terms of the food services we provide our students,” Embry, the union official, said.

Aramark will provide summer meals offered at Atlanta schools through June 30, with the new vendor taking over the next day.

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