Guest blogger: Food service management companies (FSMCs)

Hi, I’m Dr. Susan Rubin. My journey as a school food advocate has been long and full of interesting twists and turns. I’ve been at this since my youngest child hit 2nd grade, she’s now a sophomore in college.  Along the way, my advocacy work was featured in a movie, Two Angry Moms ( )along with a cameo appearance in another one: Killer at Large ( ) Most importantly, I worked with others to form a non-profit organization called Better School Food ( )  that supports school food advocates on the grassroots level.

Despite my fourteen years of advocacy, I wish I could say that that the food has significantly changed in my own school district. My youngest child is still brown bagging it and will likely continue for the remaining 5 years she’s got left in public school.
How could that possibly be? Let me explain how things work. When it comes to lunch, there are two types of school food service.
When advocating for better food in K-12 public schools, one of the first things you need to find out is who is running the show. Is your school’s lunch program self-operated or is it run by a food service management company?
What’s the difference?
In a self-op situation, those lunch ladies you see in the cafeteria are employees of the school district just like teachers and principals are. Often times, they are members of the community and even have kids in the district. An estimated 60-75% of school lunchrooms across the country are self-operated.
Chefs like Tony Geraci, Tim Cipriano and Ann Cooper are making inspiring inroads in Baltimore, New Haven and Boulder school districts where they were hired to make changes.  Food consultant Kate Adamick has done wonderful things to improve school food in Santa Barbara County with S’cool Foods initiative ( ).  Chefs Tony, Tim, Ann and Kate have been successful in school districts with self-operated school food service. Most importantly, they cook real food, from scratch.

Other school districts, like mine, outsource lunch by hiring food service management companies (FSMCs). These corporations bring in their own employees and often make a profit by utilizing large volumes of packaged foods and snacks that qualify for rebates from the manufacturers of those products. Often, many of these snacks are the same junk that you as a school food advocate are working hard to get out of your cafeteria!
Michelle Obama is aware of the impact food service management companies have on school lunch.  She addressed it in her Let’s Move initiative ( ).  As a result, three of these food giants, Aramark, Sodhexo and Chartwells, have voluntarily committed to meet the Institute of Medicine’s recommendations within five years to decrease the amount of sugar, fat and salt in school meals; increase whole grains; and double the amount of produce they serve within 10 years. 
Frankly, I don’t understand why more veggies in schools will take 10 years.  My youngest daughter will have graduated from college by then. If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t these school food giants make a meaningful push toward better school food? And what about Farm to School ( )? Why can’t these big players source some of their food from smaller, local and regional farms that are close by? It’s good for the economy and for the environment.
Sadly, my school district and thousands of others continue to serve the same packaged processed food with no hope for any meaningful change anytime soon.  There may be some superficial window dressing, such as “healthier” baked chicken nuggets and tater tots, Vitamin Water instead of full strength Coca Cola, whole-wheat pizza crusts with low fat cheese and some baked chips that meet new dietary guidelines.  It’s easy for food manufacturers to adapt their edible foodlike products to match nutrient standards.
It boils down to money. Lunch is the only part of the school day that is under the USDA. The rest of the school day falls under the Department of Education. Schools are under pressure to make sure that lunch is financially self sustaining: it must break even or turn a profit. 
When it comes to school lunch, our priorities are mixed up. We’ve put money and profit ahead of our children’s health and well-being. Plus, we are missing a huge opportunity to teach our kids about real food, in the cafeteria.
As my feisty friend and colleague Kate Adamick puts it:
The change will only happen when school superintendents and board of education stop abdicating their responsibilities to teach their students throughout the ENTIRE day. Kids don’t stop learning just because they’re on lunch break, and schools shouldn’t be contracting those teachable moments away to for-profit companies any more than they contract the services of the math or English departments away to for-profit companies. They are complicit in what amounts to corporate exploitation of the children in their care.
What can you do as a parent to remedy this situation? Please don’t sit back, brown bag your kid’s lunch and look the other way. Take a stand and get involved. Find like minded people in your community, including teachers like Mendy Heaps and Mrs.Q, and form a better school food coalition. Visit the Better School Food ( ) website for more resources and email me ( ), I’m happy to help you to come up with effective strategies that will help foster positive change.
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29 thoughts on “Guest blogger: Food service management companies (FSMCs)

  1. Great choice for a guest blogger Mrs. Q!
    Susan well said!
    Here is the jist of it simplified: FSMC's are for profit and think of the Bottom line first; Self op's put the Kids First or in my case Healthy Kids First!

  2. Isn't the problem really with the low standards and not with the FSMCs? Improve the standards and the FSMCs will have to follow them.

  3. I agree that it boils down to money. However, I also think the vast majority of parents are still too complacent to really care about overturning the system, and I think this is because the current generation of parents mostly grew up in a processed food environment themselves.

    Those of us who are slightly older parents have a different perspective, because we remember growing up in a school world where real food was the norm. Of course we need to do whatever we can to change the system, and I love every blogger and organization doing their bit. Unfortunately, where I live, I find that for every parent resisting processed food, there are 5 who don't think it's so bad (the old "in moderation" argument), and another 5 who don't care because it's what they eat all the time themselves.

  4. The Institute of Mediciine standars calling for more vegetables won't work unless schools have the cooks and equipment in place to present these vegetables as something kids will actually eat. Most kids don't like vegetables. Unless something changes, more standards like those from the IOM only raise the cost of doing business for schools with no net gain.

  5. I love you Dr. Rubin! You have been such inspiration for me since I began my journey only a three months ago. Your words of encouragement are what have helped me stand up for what I believe…and that is, FSMC's, their shady marketing, their hidden magement fees, and low quality food take money away from the little budget schools have. Parents need to speak up and ask questions. Anytime I feel like maybe I should back down or feel defeated, all I have to do is go to your site, Mrs. Q's, Mr. Bruske's, ChefAnn's, and HealthyTara's…you guys keep me going! Thank you!
    To answer your question, I have personally stepped out of my comfort zone. I have taken the uncomfortable step, and started asking questions. It has resulted in me being asked to be the Health and Wellness Chairman for my school district's PTA. I will sit with the school board and discuss menus. I will organize programs with all of our school to promote real nutrition education. We will have an allergy list posted for parents next year. It has resulted in me getting the courage to take what was a dream and actually develop a student/volunteer district wide supplement fresh produce to us directly by using resources and student clubs we already have (FFA, math club, business club, science club, media club.) It has resulted in teachers secretly asking me to keep fighting. Parents are coming together. BTW..Houston parents have talked and turns out..Pop Tarts aren't a good breakfast. They are gone from the menu. A mom in Arlington, Texas has gotten flavored milk out of her school…the district will follow next year. Its only been three months!

  6. Philippa…I see where your coming from, but you have to understand, the younger parents you are talking about, are products of processed school lunches. Look at what they have been taught..they don't know any better. I honestly think that they do want to do better..but don't know how. We have to break the cycle..and that starts with the misguided information FSMC's start teaching at a very young age. For example…promoting blueberries and then handing them a blueberry PopTart. Teaching them that a french fry counts as a vegetable serving..that a chicken nugget is a healthy way to eat chicken. They never had a chance.

  7. I was very excited to read this post this morning! Well written and thought provoking. I believe I can give an interesting perspective on the issue of FSMCs, because I run a VERY unique one. My company, J.C. Food, is a hybrid FSMC that my father began 33 yrs ago in NYC. He started working in a self-op school as a chef manager and designed his business to operate from the school’s perspective. Our company operates as a hybrid between self-op and FSMC ( Our kitchen staffs are employees of the schools they work in – part of their communities. Our operations benefit from the collective buying, menu review and recipe development (along with many other services) that we provide for them. Because we are an independently run company, we are not restricted by corporate guidelines. As a nutritionist, I personally review products and recommend them to my chefs. I don’t mandate that they buy anything. This is a highly functional business model that is beneficial for all parties involved. It is flexible, adaptable, while still being cost effective.

    To address the increasing veggies piece, I have to agree with the brilliant statement by Ms. Adamick “Kids don’t stop learning on lunch break.” This is entirely true! And certainly doesn’t take 10yrs – ludicrous!!! It takes a little fun, education and exposure. I guarantee you in 4 weeks you will have students hounding you for more veggies. This is what I have done with my Veggiecation program ( We have empowered and excited children to eat vegetables! It works and it’s awesome!!!

    Finally I wanted to address the local produce issue. I have struggled with this for several years. I prefer to work with locally grow produce for many many reasons but in certain cases working with an individual farmer can not be functional when feeding large numbers of people. Fortunately, organizations like GrowNYC ( have established a wholesale farmer’s market were we can have access to multiple farmers to fill the majority of our produce needs all in one place. This was the best development! We need more infrastructural changes like this. Also, having the buying power of numerous schools, I have been able to encourage my general food supplier to stock and label Jersey Fresh produce for us. This again increases the ease of access to local produce.

    Sorry for the long comment – I just can't stop when I get excited about this stuff 🙂

  8. Philippa, I agree with you that another obstacle to better school food is apathy. Many parents, teachers, school administrators don't fully understand the fact that we are poisoning our kids.

    That word, "moderation" should be eliminated from this conversation! The food industry has brainwashed many well meaning dieticians, nutritionists and parents with that concept.
    180 days a year for 12 years is NOT moderation!

  9. I agree that FSMC are horrid when it comes to providing school lunch, however it is not safe to assume that locally operated school kitchens are healthy or using fresh whole foods vs processed food. This entry & the first comment make it sound like fresh whole foods are guaranteed when the district takes over food preparation from a FSMC, but I would urge parents to stay vigilant rather than assuming the district is moving toward a healthier diet.

    Our district recently let our FSMC contract lapse and began running it's own food service in one central kitchen. Some good changes have been made in response to parent & student input like offering chef salad every day as one of 2 entree choices (variety would be nice but salad was 1x month with FSMC) and using more whole fruits (melons are not exactly seasonal in the north in March so I don't know where they are shipping from) and offering more variety of vegetables (but still mostly canned). We are still missing the whole grains and the "kid friendly" nuggets/patties, burgers, hot/corn dogs, and pizza are still offered at least 1x/wk, sometimes up to 3x/wk.

    It's much easier to effect change when the district is calling the shots on what gets served but parents still have to do the hard work of pushing for healthy, fresh, minimally processed food. It's still an uphill battle, especially if your district has gotten rid of kitchens & equipment because they shifted to the business of "food heater uppers" while working with FSMCs. If you're still in heater upper mode, you're still going to be buying the same frozen processed stuff for your students.

  10. I don't have any children, but it doesn't take a "parent" to recognize that kids, today, are at very unhealthy weights; I see it with my own family members. When I was growing up, dinner out at a restaurant was a rare occurrence–and a treat! Meals at a fast food restaurant, again, were a very rare occurrence. I, too, as an adult, had fallen into the habits of "convenience" foods — easy to pop into the oven and heat up, which lead to my own weight issues which I am addressing by returning to fresh foods and cooking at home–from scratch, just as I had been taught. It is sad that I went astray, since I was brought up by parents who NEVER bought (and still do not purchase) processed foods, who cooked from scratch — everything from scratch, including cakes, cookies, pies, and cake frosting — who grew fresh vegetables in a garden. Even our meats came from a farm — each year, my father would choose a calf and a pig at a local farm, the animal would be raised, and after slaughter, we would have a freezer full of meat.

    My parents really were a shining example and grew things in their garden that, then, were unheard of in most home gardens in the North (i.e., mustard greens and collard greens). I remember the FANTASTIC garden we used to have every Summer — corn, beets, eggplant, cucumbers, peppers (green, banana, jalapeno), carrots, onions, lettuce, green and wax beans, zucchini, tomatoes, radishes (even the dog would dig up the radishes and eat them fresh out of the garden!), mustard greens, collard greens, garlic, chives, basil, oregano.

    Contrary to Mr. Bruske's comment, as children, we ate vegetables . . . all sorts of vegetables . . . EVERY DAY. Too often, parents use the excuse of [s]he doesn't like vegetables. I don't recall that ever being an issue in our house growing up . . . you ate what was put on your plate. In my own experience, I have seen that children are actually more willing to try different foods than parents give them credit–it is usually the parents' own shortcomings that ultimately influence their children. I have often given vegetables to friends' children and they are always amazed that their child ate it — I simply didn't give them a choice or preface the presentation with "you might not like this" or "just try it for me and if you don't like it . . . " And they've ALWAYS cleaned their plate!

    Going to school, we were allowed once in a GREAT while (perhaps two or three times a year, not once or twice a week) to buy a school lunch–our lunches were packed every day and taken to school in our lunch boxes. The only thing we purchased each day was milk — the only beverage option. I remember very well a carton of milk was $0.04 for white milk and $0.05 for chocolate–and since we were given $0.04 each day, we purchased the white milk. There were no juices, sugary juice drinks, or sugar-laden sodas from which to choose or be tempted. If you take that stuff out of the schools, the kids will drink the milk.

  11. So I'm confused. Sodexho runs the cafeteria where I work. We have healthy choices including a salad bar every day. Of course we have unhealthy choices too – but we're a building full of adults. Why can't they provide more veggies in schools if they provide veggies to my workplace? We don't have prepackaged stuff as evidenced by the fact that the cafeteria manager has given me recipes for stuff when I've asked.

  12. "180 days a year for 12 years is NOT moderation!"

    Thank you for saying that. I get frustrated when people minimize the importance of school food in student's lives. Not only is lunchtime a learning opportunity but it also supports other academic areas by providing children with the energy to learn. Shouldn't we be giving them the highest quality fuel to do that?

  13. I'm wondering about the question of Department of Education vs USDA for funding – does the Department of Education provide enough funding for schools? I often hear of teachers using their own money for things, parent organizations often hold fundraisers. I'm curious if it would honestly be helpful for meal programs to be funded by the Department of Education?

  14. Maggie,
    The problem with the USDA being in charge of school lunch is that there is a huge conflict of interest within the USDA. Its mission is to support agriculture.

    Our mission in schools is to educate kids. That mission should not be tossed out the window at lunchtime in the name of profit.

    And YES, we should be funding education! Cutting back on a few overpriced fighter jets is all it would take.

  15. Carol – I was going to write something about children liking/not liking veggies, but you said it so much more eloquently than I could have. I couldn't agree with you more.

  16. Everything I read seems to point to the USDA being the problem. We have a situation where a government agency has a revolving-door-very-cozy relationship with the industries it's supposed to regulate. Similar to the fiasco we have with MMS being way-too-freaking-close with Big Oil. I fear that without a complete overhaul of the USDA…separating it into smaller compartments that interact but are not affected by each other and having our legislative bodies give the USDA some teeth to enfore their rules; we will never see substantitive change. Subsidies make it unrealistically cheap to produce corn which results in too many horrors of genetically modified garbage to even list. Then the government sets out making lunches which are based on food "groups" which are essentially created by the industry and that don't follow any seemingly medical guidelines.

    I don't see how focusing on school boards is going to do much of anything. Action needs to be aimed at the federal level. America considers itself a free market nation…I won' even get into the argument that we technically aren't. But until government regulations change, nothing will change. And government regulation is evil! Remember? Tea Baggers? Ya.

    There has to be an energized progressive movement because conseratives will more than happily keep things the way they are. Which isn't going to happen anytime soon. It was in a recentish article in The New Republic that touched on this. I coudn't find that article but did come across a USA Today piece which echoes the same message

  17. LOVE Kate Adamick. I live in Santa Barbara and have attended some of the S'cool Food programs (including Marion Nestle and Morgan Spurlock!)

    I am lucky that my son's school is self-run and pretty healthy. I stil pack his lunch 4x a week (it's pricey at $2.50, and I can pack a similar healthy lunch for $1.25).

  18. Hi All
    I am the executive director of Kids First in RI, working on school food improvements for the past twelve + years. Our RI reality is working with the big three FSMC’s, as we have 33 of 36 RI school districts food service operations split pretty evenly between them (a long story as to how we got here, but we are here!) We have forged the path and have discovered the leverage points for pushing the FSMC’s to do better – it’s been very challenging and tedious work, but we do have them serving lots more whole grains, lots more and wider variety of fresh fruits and vegetables (RI grown, too!), legumes and more scratch cooked foods. Elementary a la carte is limited to ONLY kitchen prepared fresh fruit and vegetable side dishes. Of course, we still have lots more to do, given the chicken nugget still appear on our RI lunch plates all too often and we need all of us working collaboratively to get that to stop!)

    How have we done this and what are the leverage points? In short, our path has included new legislation for the a la carte changes, new State regulations for the meal changes, and most importantly new FSMC RFP and Contract language. The strategic work behind the scenes includes “working the competitive forces” between the companies and spending lots of time and energy working closely with district administrators and district food advisory committees that are REQUIRED by federal regulation, to be in a position to understand and enforce their contracts.

    It is important for all of us to work together across the country to help districts to gain the upper hand in working with the “goliaths.” I am willing to help make this happen in whatever way I possibly can. It’s a matter of all of us collectively becoming more educated about the contract process, the contract language, the federal regulation regarding the contracts and figuring the path to success… it’s completely possible, so let’s do it!
    Dorothy Brayley

  19. Susan, how does that old bumper sticker go? "It'll be a great day when schools have all the money they need. And the military has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber."

    Ok, in reality, it's balance. We expect a lot from our government. And I suppose having a bake sale or candy bar sale to support healthful meals isn't exactly what we're looking for either?

    It would be interesting to see how different leadership would support & fund the programs. Given a choice of funds going to more teachers for smaller classes or fresh vegetables, I'm not too hopeful. Too many years seeing not much respect for the meal programs, I guess.

    Self run food service departments can find themselves between a rock and hard place. Lots of folks asking for many different changes (everybody eats, and knows what's best for everyone, right?), and sometimes it seems many people think "budget" is a bad word. Sadly, if a food service department can't support itself, you might find a FSMC ready to take over, selling the school board & administration on the advantages of a company that fulfills the (minimum) rules for a lower cost. And we'd be "enjoying" meals like Mrs. Q's.

  20. Hi Dorothy,
    let's talk!
    I love the fact that you were able to get somewhere on a state level. Your pioneering work could be very helpful where I live. We've got 35 school districts, more than half of which are using the same vendor. I realize that the entire state of RI probably consists of 35-45 districts. Please, share the strategy of how to write the contract specs so that they end up feeding kids real food, preferably from close by.

  21. Look what Sodhexo is up to in Rome, Italy
    My favorite part is that they have a committee of PARENTS who make sure that Sodhexo keeps their word, a team of parents come in and eat the food and make sure it tastes good!
    This 27 minute film is an eye opening view into a food culture light years ahead of ours.

  22. Go Dr. Susan – You have to love a woman who fights for 14 years and never gives up! Thanks for all you do.
    This film is amazing and I have to agree – very eye opening. Those intelligent Italians… I truly believe we have traded the love and joy we used to feel for food, for a fast and cheap relationship! We think of heating or warming up something as cooking, and eating out of a bag or peeling back the plastic wrap has replaced a plate and silverware.
    I think (slowly) we are coming around. Word is spreading and the number of parents, teachers and even students who are interested in changing our school cafeterias is growing.
    We have to keep spreading the word…

  23. By putting all FSMC in the same boat you are doing a dis-service to everyone. Not all FSMC are the same. Are all people the same? My daughter goes to a school that is self operated and hates the food. It's prepackaged, all frozen or junk food. Are all self operated districts like that?? What about districts with FSMC? I dont think so. I have worked for a few different FSMC over the last 9 years and there are differences between companies. The company i currently work for puts the nutrition of the children first. We have salad bars in all of our schools. We offer entree salads at all k-12 schools. We have helped many school districts with their foodservice programs that were losing money to become self supportive. Did you know that the USDA, the department that oversees school foodservice, says that school foodservice programs have to at least run at a breakeven? And if they don't then monies have to be taken away from their operating budgets to get them to breakeven. This takes money away from the classroom. Did you know that districts get commodity donated food that they have to use? This food sometimes isn't the most health but they have to use it in order to help keep costs down. I have seen the good and bad of both self operated districts and ones with FSMC.
    I think that the idea of proper eat habits starts at home when our children are little. I have shown my children good eating habits and that has helped them make good choices when at school and out at restaurants.The same way children are taught right and wrong from their parents is how they need to learn good eating habits. Yes school districts have a responsibility to help students eat healthly and provide them with good choices but parents must also do their part.
    If you want our schools to get more funding or to change the food and meal requirements for school foodservice contact your congressmen and tell them to act!

  24. I am looking for more examples / resources of agreements and success stories between public schools and food management companies (Sodhexo and others) that significantly raise the bar for ensuring access to healthy food for students.

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