The Waukesha School District was craving a change for its food service provider, which, as it turned out, spelled doom for a business already beset by difficulties tied an an employee theft.

After more than 20 years with Sodexo, the district will begin using Aramark starting in June. For Sodexo, it was apparently the last straw. The business announced in May that it will close locally.

Every five years districts are required by the Wisconsin Department of instruction to issue a request for proposals from food management services. The district has been using Sodexo since the 1995-1996 school year, but was looking to increase the quality of food and service it provided to students.

In the end, the board voted unanimously to make the switch to Aramark.

Problems with Sodexo

The district's recent history with Sodexo hasn't been smooth as gravy.

There was an instance of a Sodexo employee, Stacey Russell, stealing $22,900 from the district last spring. Russell, a kitchen manager at Waukesha South High School, allegedly stole money from a safe, skimmed checks from students and pocketed cash for lunches that never got rung up.

Losing the district's food service contract compounded the problems at Sodexo, which announced recently that it will be laying off 78 employees as it closes operations on or around June 15.

Aside from those problems, the district had other reasons to be concerned.

Participation in school-sponsored lunch has been declining for years districtwide. The board is hoping that by switching to a provider that promises higher quality food will help increase participation, which will bring more money into the district.

Aramark's high marks

But Superindentent Todd Gray said that situation with Sodexo, in the end, had absolutely no influence on the school board's decision to choose Aramark. The board vote was based purely on the bids submitted to the district.

Regardless, Gray has high praise for Aramark.

'They are a high quality company,' he said. 'Last fall, we had a big discussion about improving quality of food. Aramark will do that.'

The board's finance and facilities committee also held Aramark in high regard.

'We are quite confident that Aramark will give the best overall food service for district and drive participation so we can enhance our quality and service to the district,' said Joe Syroka, a member of the committee.

Aramark, Syroka said, will provide the students with higher quality food, for the same price the district was paying for Sodexo, which was ranked toward the bottom of their scoring rubric. The cost for next year will remain the same, but there might be inflationary costs over time.

The food service company's potential ability to meet the district's goals was important, said Darren Clark, assistant superintendent of business services for the district.

'The committee wanted to focus on where is this next partner going to take us,' Clark said.

Farm to table

The district was further persuaded by Aramark due to their interest and plan to incorporate more farm-to-table options for students.

Using Aramark's Farm Logic program, the firm can connect to local farms and restaurants. There is also the possibility of incorporating vegetables grown at schools in the district into the menu. The district will also have an executive chef, who is responsible for menu selection and overseeing the quality of food throughout the district.

The contract has been approved for one year with the option of yearly renewal for the next four years.

'We seemed to have focused too much in the past on the price issue, not the quality issue,' board member Kurt O'Bryan said. 'This vendor has been willing to work with us on quality and price at the same time, which is really the ideal.'

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