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  • Writer's pictureEmily Berry

Who knows what a "yogurt pak" is?

There are a lot of big, important conversations about big important topics going on in our school district lately, but I want to make sure folks know that the district is in the midst of considering changes that will affect hundreds of kids in our district, some of them twice a day: changes to our food service.

Today we have contract food service management from Taher, a Minnesota-based company with an extraordinarily weird and inexplicable mascot, "Nutra Kid," shown at left. We have a Taher on-site director, who manages our food service. Food is delivered about a week at a time and stored at school, then on the day it's served, it's warmed or assembled at school.

Maybe because the food isn't actually cooked on site, our menus include weird grab-and-go options like the "yogurt pak," which I jokingly call the "dairy lobby pack," because it's got yogurt and a bagel and cream cheese. Of course, my kids like the yogurt pak. (I will note, you can actually see nutrition breakdowns for the lunch offerings here: and the yogurt pak has one of the highest carb counts of any menu offerings -- a lot more than the daily recommended amount for little kids). Yogurt pack and creepy Nutra Kid mascot aside, I don't think our meal offerings are terrible, though like most institutional food, they leave a lot to be desired by virtue of being institutional food.

District Business Manager Patrick Miller told the school board earlier this month that Taher's contract is up, and because of a state law that requires school districts to re-bid contracts every five years, he is exploring alternatives to a renewal for Taher. The district's ongoing facilities' planning is other reason to stop and think about our longer-term goals with food service. Our kitchen facilities are old and need attention, Mr. Miller said -- and they may not meet the needs of a different style service we want.

Today Taher has a "director-led" service, Mr. Miller said. We have a district coordinator in Shorewood and the food is assembled and warmed at each school. Because we're in a metropolitan area, we could change to what he called a "vended service agreement," where a corporation would set the menu and bring us the food from what he called a "corporate kitchen," where it would be cooked and delivered daily or close to it. The corporate kitchen would likely be serving multiple school districts and customers, he said.

[To watch Mr. Miller's presentation to the board and their questions, click here -- this topic started around 1 hour and 35 minutes and lasted about half an hour.]

Mr. Miller said he wants to release an RFP in March, which is pretty quick turnaround. That sounds unlikely to be a director-led service like we have today, because he noted that the state-mandated RFP process for a director-led service is about 80 pages of paperwork, and "very long and difficult process."

In contrast, an RFP for a "vended agreement" could be shorter-term -- likely a single school year -- and easier to put together, and would allow for a workgroup to do its work before making long-term solutions. He sounded very much in favor of that option, and board members seemed receptive.

Before I go one, here's a question -- if presumably we knew the contract was going to expire and this RFP work might be required, why is the board hearing about it two months before it needs to go out? If long-term planning is needed, the time for that might have been two or three years ago. This is where I get frustrated at our district not having a better handle on totally predictable expenses, maintenance and academic changes (mostly the first two). But, alas, time travel isn't an option. We can't go back and make the board pick this up in 2015.

So what looks likely is a one-year vendor agreement, then this new work group will take on the longer-term questions. This work group will be made up of people who work for the district, but are tasked with collecting feedback from parents and students. He said he prefers not to conduct a survey -- instead, he said, he wants to offer people a chance to come talk to the group and administration in person. I wonder why he wouldn't do both, since a self-selected group that happens to have time to sit down with the work group is probably not going to be a representative sample of parents and students -- it could be valuable in other ways, but it also would be very subjective and easy to dismiss suggestions that come from one or two people, whereas if the same information shows up in multiple surveys, it's harder to ignore.

[Mr. Miller summarized the workgroup's function in a document here:]

Bottom line, if you are interested in this issue, it's a great time to send a letter to school district leadership to tell them how you feel about our current food service, and what types of options you'd like them to explore.

For example, I'd like more thought put into our impact on the environment: I was embarrassed to not know this until very recently, but every day our kids eat with plastic utensils, which I envision with some guilt and shame someday part of a floating island of plastic in the ocean. I know it may not be the cheapest option, but I'd love to have the kids use real dishes and silverware, or switch to a compostable option. This early in the process is the time to think "blue-sky" -- what would you like to see your kids be able to choose at lunch time?

I'm a little nervous about a short-term agreement with a big corporate vendor, and I'd like more information about the benefits of a director-led model versus a vendor model. Hopefully Mr. Miller does what he says he plans, and listens to people and what they tell him, and hopefully our board gets lots of input from the public (ahem, that's you).

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Feb 08, 2018

"This is where I get frustrated at our district not having a better handle on totally predictable expenses, maintenance and academic changes (mostly the first two)."

AMEN to that statement! How do I contact you? I have an idea, but your post is making me scared that it would never come to fruition.

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