When it comes to food service outsourcing at local schools, there are three districts in St. Joseph County that have gone that route. Constantine, Colon and White Pigeon school districts all outsource their food service to a nationwide company called Chartwells. Perhaps Constantine Public Schools has had the longest relationship with Chartwells. Superintendent Steve Wilson estimates the district has been using Chartwells for the past 13-14 years. The relationship with Chartwells pre-dates Wilson’s time at the district, however he said he can only imagine the reason behind the switch was one of cost savings. “I’ll tell you right now, what I use as my example as why outsourcing works is Chartwells,” Wilson said. “They are outstanding to work with.” Wilson said he hopes that though employees are technically employed by Chartwells that they feel like they are a part of the school system. Diana Mortensen, assistant food director at Constantine High School, who has been employed by Chartwells in the district for 10 years, said the employees do in fact feel a part of the school system. “Most of the employees are in the district, they have kids in the district, they have grandkids in the district,” she said. “So they feel a part of it. They’re vested in it.” And a big part of using Chartwells is the number of choices students have when it comes to lunch and breakfast. “Personally, I don’t think that you can get a better meal anywhere than right here,” Wilson said. “The amount of choices that you have at your fingertips ... We don’t believe that you can do better than what it is, or cheaper, than what you can have right here with what’s available to us.” And according to Wilson, there’s no reason to change. “We could not be happier with Chartwells and the service that they provide for our students here,” he said.
Meanwhile, at Colon Community Schools, the district has been outsourcing its food service with Chartwells since the 2006/2007 school year. That was certainly before superintendent Penny Brockway’s time, as this is her first year as superintendent with the district. Using Chartwells is a cost-savings measure in both personnel costs as well as purchasing costs of food and supplies, because Chartwells is such a large company, Brockway said. “They are able to purchase supplies as well as food in quantities that we of course would never use,” she said. “So, it becomes much less expensive for them in that essence. That ends up saving us money.” And while the money saved is important, that’s not what is most important, Brockway said. “For us to have a program that makes sure the nutrition quality and the education that goes with it is as intentional as Chartwells, that would be really hard to do,” she said. And the variety Chartwells offers is also a plus, according to Brockway. “Even at our size, it gives our kids variety that otherwise would be difficult for individuals to plan for,” she said. “Where I know that Barb Yearling, our director, is able to resource a wealth of people who work for Chartwells who have the ideas and organization already in place. So that networking is to the advantage of our kids as well.”
And at White Pigeon Community Schools, the district has outsourced food service with Chartwells for the last five years. “It’s been good for White Pigeon,” said superintendent Jon Keyer. “The state always wants you to look into that kind of stuff if you can save money, but for us it wasn’t really about saving money, necessarily. It was more about offering more benefits for our kids.” With Chartwells, students have more choices for breakfast and lunch, Keyer said. In fact, on a given day, students have the choice of pizza, cheeseburgers, chicken sandwiches, corn dogs, chicken tenders, a salad bar, a Latin bar, and much more. “Truthfully, I say, if you can’t find something for lunch, you’re not looking now,” Keyer said. And it turns out, with the money Chartwells had put aside, they were able to allow White Pigeon schools to put a second kitchen in at Central Elementary, whereas before, all food was prepared at the high school and transported to the elementary. Wanda Clay, head cook at White Pigeon Jr./Sr. High School, has been in food service at White Pigeon schools since long before the switch to Chartwells. “I was skeptical at first,” she said of the switch. “But they (the district) made the right choice.”