Eating It Up

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

And while Aramark cites an oft-quoted Harvard University study that showed that kids who eat breakfast do better in school, it ignores a similar study from the USDA with much different findings.

Preliminary results from the government study show that offering free breakfasts to every student "did not have a significant impact on measure of dietary intake or school performance." The study found that kids who previously ate breakfast at home simply started eating at school. The USDA concluded that the only real difference was that the universal breakfast helped to lower the school's per-meal cost.

Aramark spokeswoman Kate Moran deferred all comment to the district, and she did not return subsequent calls. HISD spokeswoman Villarreal says the district is happy with the program, but it's up to each school to decide whether to participate.

Al Cameron

Fitzsimmons, the union director, would like to see HISD get rid of Aramark. His union represents food service workers; he claims that Aramark has gradually phased out full-time employees with benefits in exchange for cheaper labor. He believes that the taco-filled coolers he witnessed at Jefferson Davis point to "federal fraud"; he wants the school board to launch an investigation.

"The president of the school board needs to get Aramark out of our kitchens," he says. "They care about profit and not about our children." And while the district crows about increased federal subsidies, Fitzsimmons will have none of it: "This is our money -- federal tax dollars. I'm paying for it, and you are, too."

If history is any indicator, however, Fitzsimmons won't have an easy time getting resolution on his complaints.

Three years ago, Fitzsimmons started asking questions about Quality Concession Foods. The company's owner is Darryl King, a well-connected entrepreneur who chaired the Urban League and later took the helm at the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

King says he contacted Aramark in 1996 and persuaded it to go for the HISD food service contract -- and make Quality its minority partner. (For a while, Quality also partnered with Aramark at the George R. Brown Convention Center, although King refuses to discuss whether he still does work there.) Ever since then, it's earned roughly 25 percent of Aramark's fee.

Although Aramark has paid King anywhere from $600,000 to $1 million a year, food service workers told Fitzsimmons they'd never met anyone from Quality and had seen King only once -- at a Christmas party.

Fitzsimmons called for an audit. The district ignored him. "They never did anything," he says.

King insists that he takes an active role. "Do government employees see President Bush? I work on all my contracts," he says. "I don't visit every single school, but what I do is not anybody's damn business. Everybody who thinks I don't work can kiss my black ass, and you can quote me on that."

In the last three years, questions about Quality have increased. County records show numerous tax liens against both the company and King personally. Quality owes close to $300,000 in overdue federal taxes alone; it also faces liens from the state workforce commission. In February, the Texas secretary of state revoked the company's charter for failure to file the proper tax forms; after eight months without corporate privileges in Texas, King finally filed the paperwork last month and began to work to regain certification, a state spokesman says.

In July, the company also lost city certification as a minority-owned subcontractor. It has begun to rectify the situation, says city affirmative action director Velma Laws.

District records show that Aramark paid Quality $1.19 million in the last year alone -- despite its yanked charter. Robert Gallegos, HISD's director of supplier diversity, says he plans to follow up: "The fact that they're not certified at this present moment, there are a lot of questions that need to be answered."

King insists that his company's problems are no more than paperwork mistakes. He describes an impoverished childhood and briefly blames both a cancer-stricken employee and a failure to update addresses before changing the topic. He won't discuss what he actually does for the schools.

"I don't intend to have a detailed conversation about my business practices," he says. "I don't do anything illegal. I don't ask for anything illegal. You don't see me out there wining and dining these people." When asked about a fund-raiser he underwrote last year for HISD board member Larry Marshall, King insists that's different: "Of course we do fund-raisers. Everybody does fund-raisers."

In the last five years, Aramark increased the number of breakfasts served at HISD by 65 percent, according to state records. At the same time, federal subsidies to the district have increased 48 percent. Those are far greater than the 13 percent increase notched by the San Antonio schools or the Dallas school district's 8 percent increase.

Spokeswoman Villarreal says HISD is pleased with Aramark. She cites increased participation in the food service program, a "record number" of meals served per day and a glowing report on nutritional content.

So far, the feds aren't concerned, either. They count on the Texas Department of Agriculture to monitor free breakfast and lunch programs, says USDA spokeswoman Susan Acker. The state periodically checks to ensure that numbers are in a realistic range, Acker says, but "comprehensive reviews" and on-site visits are required only once every five years.

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