The Chillicothe R-2 Board of Education voted to go to bid for a food service management company during Tuesday night's (March 19) regular meeting.

Representatives with Opaa! Food Management Inc, were on-hand to discuss their services with the board. Opaa! is a family-owned and operated food service management company, based out of Chesterfield, Mo. (near St. Louis). Formed in 1978, they tout their "buying power" and "management expertise" in keeping districts in compliance with new health food legislation (the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, for example), while reducing their (the district's) bottom line in terms of food costs by taking maximum advantage of provided government commodities and volume purchasing discounts. They promote cafeterias to cook from scratch and use fresh produce (the closest of these to Chillicothe being noted in Lafayette County), and provide multiple meal options (up to five per day, depending upon what districts decide they can afford to offer) for students and staff, including excess fruit and vegetables and whole grain options.

Opaa! currently assists 97 school districts in Missouri (nearly 2/3 of the districts that contract out their food service programs). Twenty-one of their clients have been with them for more than 15 years, and they've retained 99.2 percent of the clients they've become contracted with.

"I've met with the kitchen managers -- all of the school cooks," said R-2 Superintendent Dr. Roger Barnes Tuesday night. "We're not upset with them. We're not upset with the food they cook."

Instead, Barnes said, the move to Opaa!, and other food service company, consideration, is one based on cost.

"[Food services] is one of the places where you can trim [costs] and not lose people," said Greg Frost, former public school administrator and current Vice President of Regional Development with Opaa!. "[From prior talks, I can see that] you all are looking to keep your staff."

The Opaa! pamphlet provided by Frost to the board members Tuesday notes: "[Opaa! will] make every effort to utilize your existing staff, providing them with the training they need to become part of the Opaa! team...At this time we do not anticipate the need to reduce or eliminate the current work force. Many of our long-standing school districts still enjoy the same employees that were in place at the time we partnered with them."

A contract with Opaa! offers a five-year pricing freeze, Frost noted. Within that five-year span, school boards receive a notice each year, requesting whether or not they would like to continue with Opaa! services for the following year.

"We are locked into you guys for five years," Frost said. "You guys are not locked into Opaa!."

Per Frost, R-2 would still own all of their kitchen equipment, even if they were to terminate their contract with the company within the five year window, or at any point. Staff members would be given the option of joining Opaa! for their specific benefits packages and compensation, or staying on with their current benefits and pay with R-2. Such would be determined on an individual basis.

"[But] your students are the biggest winners of all [with Opaa!]," the pamphlet says, "benefitting from more choices, better quality, and made-from-scratch goodness -- all at a controlled cost."

Hamilton R-2 is one of two local schools (along with Brookfield R-3) out of those aforementioned 97 in the state who currently contract through Opaa! Food Management, Inc.

"Honestly, when we brought in Opaa!, I don't know if the quality of food was as good as it was when we [were in control of the operations] before," said Tim Schieber, principal at Penney High School, Hamilton. "But my kids liked it because of the choices they offered, because they didn't always like what was fixed."

Hamilton R-2 is currently in its tenth year utilizing Opaa! services.

"When [the USDA] came in to do their inspections, Opaa! did always make sure we met their guidelines," Schieber said.

"I've looked at the lunches they eat here," Barnes said. "I'd say that they're very comparable [to what Opaa! can provide]. I'm surprised that anyone would say that they're any less quality."

A human resources representative with Brookfield R-3 chose not to comment on Opaa!'s food quality when asked Wednesday morning.

When the C-T attempted to gather opinions from cafeteria workers at Field School, we were informed that they had been advised not to speak with the media.

Barnes noted that when he was superintendent at El Dorado Springs, Opaa! had already been managing their cafeteria system for well over 20 years, and that they had no problems with the company.

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As part of a recent feasibility study, R-2 was shown that their kitchens "are not overstaffed" and that "the cost of having [their] staff is not pushing [them] over", money-wise.

Rather, the problem that leads to a need to contract out for food services, Barnes said, has to do with the fact that the district "[doesn't] have any control on the price of food." Companies like Opaa! can swing that pricing in the district's favor.

"What I'm looking at is 'How much can you save us?'" Barnes said. "We can use that money for some other services for our kids, whether it's an additional high school counselor, or new textbooks, or new equipment in the kitchens."

"We're in the business of saving districts money and bringing in quality," Frost said Tuesday.

As part of the process for bidding out the food services program, Barnes said that R-2 first developed specifications that they want each bidding company to adhere to. Those must be approved by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).

Per Barnes, DESE has given the district the 'okay' to do so.

On top of using the local newspaper, Barnes said the district will be placing an advertisement for the services in larger papers, such as those in Kansas City and St. Joseph.

"If we want to get as much competition as possible, we need to put it in a paper of large circulation," Barnes said. "We'll place that today. It'll run for a week."

After that, companies will contract the district for their list of specification, and attend a set pre-bid conference.

"It is mandatory attendance," Barnes said. "We'll give them a walkthrough of our kitchens. If they so choose, they will then submit a bid."

Bids will be due May 7.

"We would have board action on [May] 21," he said. "We may end up with half a dozen bids, and we may just end up with one. I would venture to say that we'll come out with more than one bid."

With Opaa! (and Barnes said he assumes with most all of the food service management companies) a new position will be added to oversee what the menus will look like on a daily basis -- the food service director.

"They will have a director that will specifically be for our district," Barnes said. "They oversee all kitchens. They will see that all menus are developed, that we are following all the rules and regulations, and that we're serving all the food that we say we're serving.

"Each kitchen, as they are now, will still have a kitchen manager, who will determine who does what job each day. Exactly what they prepare will come from the food service director."

The food service director will be an employee of the management company, and not of the district, per Barnes. However, he noted that district cafeteria workers often become directors with Opaa!.

"That's not uncommon," said Barnes.

Although the item was originally only set as a "discussion" measure on the Tuesday agenda, after the Opaa! presentation, the board quickly motioned to seek bids for the district's food services, without prompt.

"The thing about putting it out to bid is that it doesn't mean you have to do anything," Barnes said.

After a second, the measure was put to a vote, and approved by voice vote.