Q and A with Bob Bloomer from Chartwells-Thompson

Last week I told you about how I met Mr. Bob Bloomer, the Regional Vice President for Chartwells-Thompson Hospitality for Chicago Public Schools. He agreed to answer a few of my questions and I appreciate that considering he is a busy guy (he oversees the day-to-day management of food services in 470 Chicago schools). I want to thank him for being gracious enough to participate.

1) Just so we’re clear, does your company have anything to do with the food I ate last year? No, as your school would have been serviced by Preferred Meals which is a separate contract with CPS. CPS requires that all meals meet the nutrition standards they set for school meals.

2) Tell me about yourself, where you are from and when you got interested in school food. I am originally from New York and came to CPS via Thompson Hospitality, our joint venture partner at CPS. I came to Chicago in the summer of 2000 to help open CPS as the Thompson Hospitality joint venture representative. I ended up staying permanently and moved over to the Chartwells payroll and my decision to do this was based on what I considered to be the important work that we were doing here in Chicago.

3) What do you do on a typical day? I’m not sure if there really is such a thing as a typical day. I typically start my day in the office at 7:00 AM answering emails and catching up on anything that I need to. I meet with my team members on a regular basis to discuss anything that affects our school meal operations – nutrition and menus, student participation, marketing, minimizing food waste, cost issues, etc. The current expansion of Morning Max to the remainder of the elementary schools has been a huge undertaking and is occupying a lot of my time right now. I go out to at least two or three schools each week, unannounced, to see how our programs are being received by students. I eat at those schools I visit whether breakfast or lunch and solicit feedback from students. I have off sight meetings with principals, parents, LSC members, and typically enjoy those exchanges. It’s important for me to learn first-hand how our operations are working. I also work with several community and national organizations such as the Healthy Schools Campaign, Familyfarmed.org and School Food FOCUS, a group representing the 40 largest urban school districts in the US, trying to bring more healthful foods to students.

4) What’s the best part of your job? This is an easy question to answer, seeing hungry students enjoying the food being served to them in our school dining centers by the caring staff members of Nutrition Support Services. I also enjoy working with community groups that are dedicated to the betterment of children’s lives both here in Chicago and nationally.

5) What is your biggest challenge? It’s trying to get out the word about all of the great changes that are being made in the district by the dedicated team members in each school. A lot has changed in the last year and it will take some time for all students to try the new food selections and become familiar with the great tasting, healthier choices offered in schools.

6) Do you think there is a problem with school food and do you think there needs to be reform? The school meals program is a critical part of child nutrition in our country. More than 31 million children participate in the program every day. Everyone needs to keep in mind that the average district across the country has less than one dollar to spend on food for each lunch served. I think we and districts across the country do amazing work with that dollar and are always looking to improve what we do. We are always looking at ways of providing more healthful, more locally-sourced foods to our students.

CPS has one of the largest farm-to-school programs in the country. Our goal is to spend $2.5 million dollars this year on locally sourced and produced fresh and frozen produce. We are working on a project now that will bring raw chicken into Chicago Public Schools next year which we will prepare on-site. We are working with the USDA to source enough of this chicken to serve on our menus at least two to three times each month. We feel that our school dining managers and cooks are ready for this next important step.

7) If a parent or teacher has a concern about the food in their school, what should they do? What if Chartwells is their vendor? They should contact Nutrition Support Services and we will be happy to address any concerns.

8) What do you want people to know about Chartwells? Chartwells is the leader in school food service in this country and abroad. We are market leaders in such areas as local procurement, sustainability, supporting local minority and women-owned businesses. We are working hard to make the best possible meals for students in Chicago.

9) What’s your wish for school food? I would hope that we continue to improve the healthfulness of foods that we offer students and can source less processed, cleaner label affordable foods and continue to be innovative in the way that we cater to our populations. We have many exciting programs that we are working on here in Chicago that will increase the acceptability of our menus by students.

10) Anything else you would like to mention? We are thrilled to be part of a community that is working to improve children’s health and academic success. But, we need more people to be part of the community that is focused on promoting healthy lifestyles. I am lucky to work with a great group of professional, caring individuals that truly want to see better for all of the students that we serve in Chicago. Everything that we do at CPS is for all of the students of CPS and must be sustainable financially.

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17 thoughts on “Q and A with Bob Bloomer from Chartwells-Thompson

  1. So there's your next year of blogging, Ms. Q! Get a job at a school that's serviced by Chartwells (which most of them are) and blog a year of eating their food! (Or maybe I can do it for you, undercover. Although I am a parent not a teacher so it would probably be suspicious if I showed up every day to eat lunch.)

  2. Love that idea! Then I can email Bob directly when I have concerns! Though the gluten free thing would still be tough… 🙂

  3. I'd love to see pictures of the food his company produces to compare it to the food in your school. It certainly sounds good in writing, but then, so does chicken parmesan… until the day you unwrapped it from its plastic and horrified the world. :p

    Seriously though, if they have any meals that are similar (in name) to something you ate, it would be AWESOME to see a side-by-side picture so we can compare. Especially because it sounds like this company also caters to your locale, so it would be really interesting to see how much of a difference a few miles can make to the lunches kids eat each day.

  4. Forgive me for being cynical, but I'll believe it when I eat it. I think I've mentioned before that among my friends, Chartwells is synonymous with awful food – because many of us attended college served by Chartwells. Granted, college was a few years ago – but I've eaten their food more recently, too. Chartwells is the education branch of Compass Group, which has several branches providing food service to cafeterias of all kinds. There are branches like Chartwells for primary food service, as well as smaller brands that operate kiosks/food court shops in student centers, corporate cafes, etc. Compass Group is huge – Chartwells is one of at least 14 companies in the group. We've talked many times before about the low reimbursement rates for school lunches – do we stop to consider that that $1/meal rate has to include a profit margin for the corporation providing the food? That $1/meal has to pay for the food itself, maybe the staff to serve it, the transportation to get the food there, operating costs for Chartwells and the separate entity that sources food, and profit margins for the various layers of the conglomerate. I'd suspect that much of the savings that come from economies of scale in school food get eaten up in the form of dollars by shareholders and executives, not in the form of better food for kids.

  5. Forgive me for saying this, but our schools are serviced by Chartwells, and my kids still refuse to eat the food. The food is inedible, the lines are too long (which tells me that kids are buying it) but my kids consider it junk. I think that Chartwells has the right philosophy, but more money needs to put to the actual food and more workers need to be available to actual get the kids in and out of cafeteria lines before the food will be deemed edible by more kids and parents.

  6. This was a great interview and a wonderful look into the other side of things. It's always nice to see that there is a human face behind a company that has had so much press (both good and bad).

  7. I don't think I've ever commented before, but this post gave me an idea of something you could do to satisfy the folks that miss you eating lunches. At the very least, it might be interesting if you'd post the weekly menu at your school, so everyone could see what's STILL being fed to the kids. As an added layer, if you see something new and intriguing pop up on the menu, you could eat school lunch that day, post the pics, review it, etc. Obviously you'd be free to defer to your gluten avoidance, but since you're not doing it exclusively to experience exactly what the kids do anymore, you could supplement the school lunch with something from home to make sure it doesn't make you miserable for that day. Just a thought 🙂

  8. I agree with Amy–it would be nice to at least have an idea about what's being served at your school, even if you no longer wish to buy/eat it.

    Maybe part of your weekly wrap-ups you could just post a quick summary of what was served at your school? (Similar to what you've been doing with your son's daycare)

    It seemed like the 2010/2011 year was bringing modest changes to your school's menu with additions like whole wheat breads, greens, and veggie/rice dishes. It would be interesting to know whether that trend is continuing to grow, has stagnated, or has ceased altogether.

  9. Sedexo provided the food for my high school and Aramark provides the food at my community college. I swam competitively in high school, so I needed all the calories I could get. I ate pretty much whatever I could get my hands on. Most days, I ate out of the line that served lunches similar to those you ate and I didn't find the food all that bad. I loved their mashed potatos and a lot of their pasta. I was guilty of eating my share of mystery meat hamburgers and fries if it was the shortest line, though. My favorite option was the deli line where you could order any sandwich you wanted and they made it on the spot. The only time we could get anywhere near the line was if we got out of show choir early (I didn't have study hall) and could make it into the line before our 25 minute lunch was up.

    I've never actually eaten anything out of the hot food line through Aramark. I get a salad if I don't have time to pack a lunch or go somewhere else to get food. I might have to go and buy a lunch and take a few pictures to see what their food looks like. I think the community college sells more soda and prepackaged foods than anything, though.

  10. Yeah, his description sounds fantastic on paper, but I've seen fantastic descriptions from companies like McDonald's, so…I don't trust anyone anymore. I hate marketing, by the way.

    @Katie – My college also gets their food through Aramark. Meh. Not only is their food weeeeak, but they're greedy beyond belief. They're constantly tweaking our meal plans to squeeze out as much money as possible, much to the inconvenience of the students.

  11. Wow, I stumbled upon your blog while looking for lunch box! Awesome effort what you're doing, Mrs Q! Will visit often 🙂

  12. @Lauren — I'm not a big fan of corporations, but I felt his viewpoint was a valid inclusion to my project.

    @Amy and @Anonymous — I know you are right. I just am physically revolted when I read our lunch menu. I can't look at the menu even or think about school lunch. As you can imagine, the year took a toll on me. I'll try harder to incorporate current menus. Thanks for the tip.

  13. I wonder why nobody ever proposes the idea of a vegetarian lunch as a rule — not an occasional deal or option. Consider how much meat (even the shitty processed meat often found in school lunches) takes up of that less than a buck budget.

  14. The food at my university is provided by Chartwells, and let me tell you- it's only slightly better than public elementary/middle/high school food because they can't trick us into eating MOST of the stuff anymore. They have a "suggestion" board up in the cafeteria seating area and if you ever have a complaint, they ignore it. The people who work for Chartwells on campus are horrible- they are overcharging, but that shouldn't surprise anyone! The actual representatives are rude to students, rude to other faculty members, and have said, "we really don't care what you think about our food- if you don't like it, don't get a meal plan" to several students. Ironically, the students never get a meal plan when returning to housing the next year! Anyway, school food is school food- it all sucks, especially Chartwells. There are no vegetarian options, no real healthy options unless you want a salad every meal, and you can forget about being gluten free!

  15. I know you said your bulltrash detector told you he's a decent guy, and maybe he is, but I can't help but feel that these answers were the kind of non-answers you usually hear from a politician or PR person. He may care about the food kids eat, but he speaks the language of the company man. And no offense meant to you, the questions were kind of on the softball side. I know you're not an investigative journalist on a hard-hitting expose, but this "interview" sounded more like a "tell us how awesome your company is" story.

  16. JGold — I wanted to present a different side to the debate about school food. Since he agreed to participate which I thought was generous of him, I didn't want to be a jerk with my questions.

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