Needy kids to get extra meals
The company that will take over Columbus schools' money-losing food operation plans to feed students not just at school, but also during weekends.
Sodexo wants to start a program that on Fridays will send backpacks of food home with low-income Columbus children to tide them over until the school bell rings again. The program, which is to be
funded by the company and local donations, is to start in January.
The district initially will select 325 students to receive the bags, which will contain enough nonperishable food for four meals. Food items might include canned fruits and vegetables, cereal, rice, pasta
and beef stew.
The Backpack Food Program is part of the $13 million contract that the Columbus school board approved with Sodexo last month. The one-year contract, which took effect July 1, allows four annual
The district's food-service department, which is supposed to be financially self-sufficient, has plunged more than $10 million into the red in recent years. Sodexo has promised to cover any future
overruns, provided the district accepts its operational recommendations. If the department earns a profit, Sodexo will keep between 5 percent and 7.5 percent of the surplus. Conservative financial
estimates in the contract say Sodexo could lose up to $430,000 a year, but a company representative called that "a worst-case scenario."
"Through nutritious, exciting, trend-related menus that we will give to the students, we will grow participation in the program," said Jane Buttermore, vice president for Sodexo school services.
Sodexo helped turn around the finances of Atlanta Public Schools' food operation. The Atlanta district had developed a deficit of more than $18 million when Sodexo was brought in three years ago, said
Roger Kubler, deputy superintendent of operations for the district. By the second year of the agreement, the food operation was turning a profit, he said. The percentage of students eating at school has
increased nearly 10 points.
"The primary benefit that Sodexo brings is they are a very large multinational company so they can draw on resources that might not be available to a district," Kubler said. "From a cost-control
standpoint, they have significant buying power." Sodexo operates its Backpack Food Program in about 25 school districts, Buttermore said.
The company's charitable arm, Sodexo Foundation, will provide a grant to start the program in Columbus. But local donations will be needed to keep the program running, she said.
More than 70 percent of Columbus schools' 50,000 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches because of low family income. District officials will choose which students receive the weekend
meals. In Providence, R.I., referrals to the program often come from nurses. "It gets a lot of calls from school nurses for students with ailments that come back to malnutrition," said Christina O'Reilly,
spokeswoman of Providence Public Schools. "Or they are tired or absent a lot because they don't have the wherewithal to come to school."
She said the district distributes 153 backpacks each Friday, mostly to elementary-school students, from discreet locations such as the principal's office. Sodexo also will contribute $75,000 in
scholarships and internships to Columbus students each year.