Eating It Up

Are HISD and Aramark cooking the books to feast on federal breakfast subsidies?

The cafeteria workers at Jefferson Davis High School run their breakfast program with factorylike precision. Into the big blue Igloo coolers go foil-wrapped taco pockets, cartons of milk and boxes of apple juice. Each kid gets one breakfast. Each classroom gets one cooler.

The coolers are shipped to classrooms at Davis just before the bell rings; by the time morning announcements are over, the kids have brought them back, laden with crumpled foil and empty cartons. Another day, another breakfast served.

There's just one problem: Many of the breakfasts never even get touched.

Al Cameron

Breakfast in the Classroom is a project of the Houston Independent School District and its food service contractor, Philadelphia-based Aramark. Figuring that kids learn better on a full stomach, 56 schools in the district now serve breakfast during first period to anyone who wants it. Thanks to the project, HISD now serves 11 million free breakfasts a year -- almost five million more than it did before the program expanded.

But a quick survey of the returned coolers at Davis reveals that a breakfast served is much different from a breakfast eaten. Cooler after cooler returns with untouched taco pockets and unopened milk cartons; in many coolers, the juice is gone, but that's about it.

HISD spokeswoman Adriana Villarreal says that only kids who want breakfast get food, and teachers use rosters to check off the kids who eat. But the worksheets at Davis seem to bear little relation to the evidence. In one classroom, for example, the teacher has checked off 32 of 37 kids -- despite returning a cooler with 33 milk cartons and 18 unopened tacos. In another, the teacher has marked off 28 kids, but only five took tacos.

There's more at stake than accurate record-keeping. The federal government's Free Breakfast Program reimburses HISD up to $1.46 for every eligible kid who eats breakfast. Last year, that added up to $16.7 million in federal funds to the district.

Thanks to the fed's largesse, HISD's food service program ran an $8.9 million surplus last year, according to records. And that, along with the increased participation numbers, ensured Aramark its highest fee yet: $4.75 million for the year.

Not everyone is happy.

"They're serving thousands of breakfasts that no one even looks at, much less eats," says Orell Fitzsimmons, field director for the Service Employees International Union Local 100. "They're bilking the free breakfast program for millions every year."

HISD spokesman Terry Abbott rejects that criticism. This year "we were able to actually cut the price of our meals for the poorest kids in half, while all around the country other school districts were raising prices," he writes. "Fitzsimmons has always opposed Aramark, and he has always been wrong."

Hiring a private company to manage HISD's food service program was the brainchild of former superintendent Rod Paige, now the U.S. secretary of education. The district's cafeterias had barely been breaking even; the state comptroller had released a blistering audit. Aramark, Paige said, would clean up the mess and run the program at a profit.

However, the plan lost money in two of Aramark's first three years managing it, including a whopping $2.8 million in the 1998-99 school year, according to district records.

Breakfast in the Classroom changed that. While the program officially started with one school in 1997, it didn't really hit a critical mass until the new millennium. Not so coincidentally, the food service program began to run fat surpluses at the same time. In fiscal year 2002, it ran $8.7 million in the black -- a 361 percent improvement from the year before, according to records. Last year, with the program in at least 30 schools, breakfast subsidies made up 16 percent of the program's total revenue.

The math is simple enough. Once cafeteria workers are on-site, it's significantly more economical for them to serve two meals than one, especially when most of those meals are paid for by the federal government. (The program is aimed at lower-income students; more than 80 percent of HISD kids qualify for free or reduced-price meals.)

Of course, the district could just serve breakfast in the cafeteria. After all, janitors say the in-room breakfasts create a big mess; one teacher at Reagan High reported that his students enjoyed hiding the breakfast entrée around the room and daring him to find it before it rotted.

But kids just aren't interested in stopping by the cafeteria. Maggie Polk, food service manager at Sam Houston High, says she served almost 2,700 meals every day last year during the Breakfast in the Classroom. After the program was canceled this year and kids were required to make a trip to the cafeteria to eat, that number dropped to 200 -- even though Aramark cut prices.

Aramark is making a big push to expand to more schools. It's been peddling a packet of information to union reps and acting superintendent Abe Saavedra, spelling out its financial benefits. The packet quotes the president of the National Education Association saying that serving kids breakfast is important for "the future of this country." It even notes that schools that serve breakfast in the classroom showed a significant increase in standardized test scores.

Aramark's qualitative claims are difficult to confirm. Aramark's own stats show that secondary schools in the program averaged a 3 percent improvement in their passing rate; the district average for the same year was a 5 percent gain, according to the Texas Education Agency. So secondary schools in the program actually did a little worse than their peers.

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