Aramark to continue serving meals to CPS kids under new $88.5M food contract

The new agreement was signed after CPS explored ditching Aramark, its food vendor for years. Open Kitchens, based in Pilsen, is also a part of the contract and will serve 187 sites.

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CPS students get meals at Roswell B. Mason Elementary School on the Southwest Side.

CPS students get breakfast at Roswell B. Mason Elementary School on the Southwest Side.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Chicago Public Schools officials are sticking with Aramark for school meals next year under a new $88.5 million contract that also brings in a Chicago-based company for a portion of the food services.

The new agreement by and large covers the same services in the district’s existing deal but was signed after CPS explored ditching Aramark, its food vendor for years.

Instead of taking its last renewal option on its existing deal with Aramark, CPS sought bids in January and received three. Aramark was the only one that would serve both elementary and high schools, so it was once again chosen, the district said Monday.

Officials, though, added to the new contract a second company to serve 163 schools with no full kitchen plus a couple-dozen after-school programs: Chicago-based and family-owned Open Kitchens, headquartered in Pilsen.

“We are confident that through these new contracts, we’ll be able to provide better menu items for students and we also plan to engage more with students and parents during the coming school year about how to continue to improve our food service,” CPS spokeswoman Mary Fergus said.

CPS is presenting the agreement to the Board of Education for approval at Wednesday’s monthly meeting. It’s a one-year contract with the two vendors starting Aug. 15 with four additional one-year renewal options.

The new contract is slightly cheaper than years past, costing CPS up to $88.5 million next year. The district spent $97 million each of the first two years of the previous contract in 2018-19 and 2019-20. Then CPS paid $126 million the year it distributed meals during the pandemic and $105 million this current year.

“The annual contract cost of $88.5 million reflects a decrease from last year because Open Kitchens is no longer a sub-contractor of Aramark and we are able to realize a cost saving by contracting directly with this Chicago-based company,” Fergus said.

The district also now has the right to end the contract with six months’ notice.

The two companies together will provide staff, breakfast, lunch, after-school snacks and other products “through freshly prepared meals on-site or through pre-packaged vended meals in approximately 700 sites,” the agreement says.

Open Kitchens, owned by Teri Fiore and her son Anthony, works with local schools, day cares, senior homes, suburban golf courses and the Archdiocese of Chicago, according to its website. As an Aramark subcontractor for CPS, Open Kitchens has served about 100 schools. That’s going up to 187 next year.

“Remember school lunch when you were a kid? You may have eaten it, but chances are you didn’t like it,” their website says. “We serve school lunches that kids love to eat. Our meals, planned and prepared to meet the tastes and special nutritional needs of children, include macaroni and cheese, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and other fun and wholesome foods kids enjoy.”

Students have complained about CPS school lunches for years. And last week a group of Phillips Academy High School students teamed up with a teacher to creatively highlight those gripes with highly produced photos of mediocre lunches.

In an attempt to address those concerns, the Illinois Legislature sent a bill to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s desk this month that eliminates the requirement for districts to accept the lowest bid for their food contracts. Once signed into law, schools officials will have the ability to negotiate for higher quality products and balance quality with price.

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