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Wednesday, July 23,2014

Magic Meals

by Matt Mikus
The new contract between Lansing School District and SodexoMAGIC, a partnership involving Earvin "Magic" Johnson, will provide healthy eating options and a third meal for after school programs.

The third meal means a nutritional dinner for students who participate in sports or other after-school activities. But it comes as a higher cost than the former contract.

Aramark, seeking to renew its contract, provided the lowest base price, at $2.07 per meal, compared to SodexoMAGIC’s $2.25 and Chartwells $2.71. But Aramark suffered during the interview with the district in categories like collaboration with school personnel, training for foodservice employees, and satisfaction among students, staff and parents.

The new contract will focus on increasing the number of students who are consuming healthy school meals by providing more healthy options. Marketing campaigns will attempt to convince students to choose nutritional options.

Teresa Syzmanski, chief of operations for Lansing School District, said the new program will offer the third meal for free or reduced costs.

“As long as there’s an educational concept,” she said, “the company is reimbursed for the meal the same way they are from breakfast and lunch. That’s important, because a lot of these students really only get a good meal while they’re at school.”

SodexoMAGIC will also provide an annual grant for improving student quality of life, and a new junior executive development program to expose students to corporate and government careers.

Syzmanski added that SodexoMAGIC offered to help the Lansing Promise and H.O.P.E. Scholarship programs, with Johnson promising to host fundraising events.

The Lansing School District voted seven to two for the contract in April, and SodexoMAGIC took over foodservice operations from Aramark on July 1.

The new partnership may be a bellwether for the state’s contracts regarding food services. Aramark has faced heavy criticism on how it handles meals for correctional facilities. Board member Amy Hodgin was one of two votes against SodexoMAGIC’s contract. She believes the actual choice between private food service vendors is limited. Besides Sodexo — which partnered with Magic Johnson Enterprises in 2006 to form SodexoMAGIC — and Aramark, only Chartwells, a division of the Compass Group from Britain, is a large enough company to provide food service management.

“There’s not hundreds of different options,” for food management companies large enough to serve the Lansing School District, Hodgin said. “So change is going to take time. But it seems that they want change to happen next year.”

According to documents from the Lansing School District, three companies bid for the district’s contract. SodexoMAGIC scored the highest of the three.

Every four years the district is required by state law to reopen the bidding process for a new contract with its food service contractor. The state Department of Education provided a rubric to conduct the interview, and seven district employees used the rubric to score the companies.

Scores for each company were calculated by the lowest base price, followed by scores received through an interview process. SodexoMAGIC scored the highest, with Chartwells taking second just ahead of Aramark.

Once compiled, the board of education voted based on the recommendations from the interview.

Since the district moved to privatize food service management in 2006, Sodexo, Chartwells and Aramark have been the only three companies to bid on the contract. After the first round, Johnson partnered with Sodexo to compete for the bid.

Board President Peter Spadafore said he’s pleased with the new contract. He believes Sodexo will provide similar service to the district, and with Magic Johnson comes added perks of fundraising.

SodexoMAGIC’s deal will last for one year, with the option to renew the current contract annually for a period of four years. The contract fee, at $5.38 million, is more than the $4.93 million contract with Aramark, but district officials believe the value is worth expense.

Spadafore doesn’t believe the contract was rewarded to SodexoMAGIC based solely on the partnership with the former NBA star.

“There’s no spot on the rubric that asks whether the company is owned by an alumni of the school,” he said. “So no, I don’t believe that was a factor in the decision.”

Symanski said SodexoMAGIC secured the contract this year due to its research into the community’s needs.

“They mentioned the HOPE and Lansing Promise programs, and really focused on what our community needs,” Symanski said.

Hodgin doesn’t consider moving to a new company as cause for celebration. Since the same three companies bid their services to the school district, she wonders why Sodexo scored higher the third time, compared to the first two bids.

“Aramark was always very cooperative with us. They would try to adapt to our needs,” she said. “If Sodexo is so good, why didn’t they pick them when they decided to privatize in the first place?” Hodgin said the issues facing Aramark’s prison contract should not reflect poorly on its education services, a separate division within the company. She couldn’t recall any serious issues with the company since the board decided to privatize.

While Aramark did offer to fix issues, Spadafore said not every request from the district would be fulfilled. He also recalls that some complaints were received about the number of healthy options available, but agrees that Aramark’s issues with the state Department of Corrections have not spilled over to the Lansing School District.

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