Kokomo schools contracts with food service provider

·3 min read

Jun. 7—Citing staff shortages and supply chain issues, Kokomo School Corp. is turning to a third-party food service provider to ensure students are served breakfast and lunch.

KSC will contract with Chartwells, a food service provider that works with schools. The company is partnered with 665 school districts, according to its website.

When the contract goes into effect July 1, Chartwells will manage day-to-day operations, including meal planning, food and supply purchasing, employee management and meal serving, according to a news release. There will be a transition period.

Michelle Cronk, director of business for KSC, said staffing shortages and supply chain issues led the school district to look at an outside food service provider. Partnering with Chartwells is expected to increase buying power and increase access to food.

"Our people, they're killing themselves getting things done," Cronk said during a school board work session earlier this month. "We can't get anything. We don't have food to make things work. We have people covering multiple buildings. We felt like it was time to make that move."

Schools across the country have faced supply chain challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. A U.S. Department of Agriculture survey found that 92% of schools experienced limited product availability last school year. Public, larger and rural school districts were more likely to face issues, according to the survey.

Meat, such as chicken, and bakery items were the hardest find. Schools reported scarcity is getting worse.

Three-quarters of survey respondents said they struggled with staffing challenges.

Food service workers at Kokomo schools are expected to be hired on by Chartwells.

"We wanted to make sure every one of our current employees could have an opportunity to, if not better their position, have something very close (to it)," said Mike Wade, director of operations.

Wade also oversees the Food Services Department at KSC.

Chartwells emerged as the preferred vendor during the selection process. Cronk said Kokomo schools officials were impressed after visiting Northwestern School Corporation, which also uses Chartwells.

"We really felt Chartwells was more student-centered," Cronk said.

"It's going to be better for our kids, and our employees are going to be able to do something that is going to keep them there or an even better situation," Wade added.

Kokomo schools will hire a food services director, a requirement of the USDA, who will oversee and audit operations of Chartwells.

The partnership with Chartwells comes at a time when federal waivers that allowed schools to provide free meals to all students are set to expire.

The waivers, originally passed at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, expanded eligibility for free breakfast and lunch. Free and reduced meals had been limited to those who qualified based on income.

Waivers were extended twice with bi-partisan support; however, they are not included in the recent congressional spending bill.

Advocates are concerned about how the end of universal meals will impact families, especially as grocery costs continue to rise.

Spencer Durham can be reached at 765-454-8598, by email at spencer.durham@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter at @Durham_KT.