Dear Preferred Meal Systems: Please go away

by Dana Woldow, 2012-12-17

Much has been made of the fact that Revolution Foods, which recently was declared the low bidder for SFUSD's new fresh school meals contract, is a local, Oakland-based company, while the current contract holder, Preferred Meal System Inc., is headquartered in Illinois. However, PMSI has a local connection too; its parent company Prepared Meal Holdings Inc., is part of the portfolio of companies owned by Swander Pace Capital, a private equity firm with offices at 100 Spear Street in downtown San Francisco. That's where Shawn Hecht, chairman of Prepared Meal Holdings Inc., and a managing director of Swander Pace, has his office. It is to Mr. Hecht, chairman of Preferred's parent company, that this open letter is addressed.

Dear Mr. Hecht:

I am a school food advocate and parent of three recent graduates of the San Francisco Unified School District. I was volunteer parent co-chair of SFUSD's student nutrition committee for 8 years, including 2005, when your company, Preferred Meal Systems Inc., first began serving meals to SFUSD students; however, these opinions are my own.

At first, our relationship with Preferred was everything a new romance should be - the food was better than what most schools had been serving before, and the price was affordable. Service was great - the PMSI folks from Illinois assigned to our account couldn't do enough for us. Did I mention that Preferred got the meal contract because its bid was lowest?

I don't know when it all started to go wrong. Like the high school girl who gradually realizes that she now has to nag her boyfriend to post those cute photos of them together on Facebook, when he used to do it spontaneously OMG!, it was little things. I had to push - hard - to get Preferred to even consider offering sugar snap peas on the salad bar. After three years, a fellow from the Illinois office promised we would get them, but we never did. For years we asked for real chicken on the bone, but were always told it wouldn't meet USDA regulations, despite the fact that other school districts were serving it; we finally got "real" chicken this year - once. An article about high fructose corn syrup in the December 2009 edition of the Preferred Word (a monthly newsletter for parents and students), stating there was no consensus among researchers about whether HFCS was good or bad, infuriated parents by citing the Mayo Clinic as its source without mentioning that the full Mayo Clinic article said most of the pro-HFCS "research" was done by the soda industry.

Then it was bigger things. The price started inching up, but Preferred continued to be the lowest bidder, so it kept the contract. Service declined, then vanished entirely in one spectacular meltdown at the start of school in 2011. More and more students were complaining about the quality of the food. The 2009-10 SF YouthVote survey of over 8000 public high school students revealed that about 25% were skipping lunch on school days; almost 75% of students chose "better food" as the factor that would most likely get them to eat lunch.

Parents were concerned about the environmental consequences of trucking meals thousands of miles from Illinois. A parent invited the SF Chronicle's restaurant reviewer to her school for lunch, and he wrote a scathing review.

For years I defended your company against complaints, reminding people that most of our schools lacked facilities to cook on site; that even with a central kitchen, scratch cooking might be prohibitively expensive; that the high cost of living in SF puts the cost of fresh meals out of reach using just the government payment.

Every time there was a story about some tainted product used elsewhere in school meals, and during the infamous "Pink Slime" debacle, I reminded people that in their 40 years of providing school meals, Preferred had never had a single case of food borne illness. But I too dreamed of fresh lunches for our students.

Finally, this year, despite the higher cost, SFUSD determined that it was in the best interests of our students' health and ability to learn, to switch to fresh meals instead of frozen. An invitation for bids was issued specifying fresh meals, prepared no more than 24 hours in advance of being picked up for delivery. Preferred bid on the contract, and so did Revolution Foods.

Once again, price was a determining factor, but this time Preferred did not have the low bid. Preferred's bid of $61,416.50 per day was substantially higher than Revolution's bid of $59,356.00. I know it must have been a shock, but Revolution won the district's recommendation for the contract fair and square.

Then came the news that the vote on the contract, which was supposed to take place at a Board of Education meeting on December 11th, had been postponed because Preferred had filed a bid protest. It wasn't surprising; after all, Preferred sued when they lost a contract in Boston for 86 schools to competitor Whitson's. But how did that work out for you, Mr. Hecht? Were you able to prove your lawsuit's claim that "Allowing the city’s contract with Whitsons to continue will cause ongoing harm not only to Preferred Meal Systems, but also to the citizens of Massachusetts and the general public"?

I'm guessing not, because a few months later the Boston press was reporting that Boston was going with Whitson's. It did give the media an opportunity to repeat all of the complaints that folks had about Preferred, though - the trucking food in from far away, the lack of fresh fruit, vegetables and whole grains. Was a failed lawsuit worth the bad publicity?

You should know what folks here in SF are saying about Preferred's meals. A parent sent me feedback from 4th and 5th graders at an SF elementary school on a recent day when the lunch provided by Preferred was teriyaki glazed chicken. Asked what they thought of their lunch, student comments ranged from "Bad - it's fake food" to "It doesn't really taste good" to "This is nasty - I can't eat it."

A high school student told me that same day, "The meal itself can look unpleasant and most of the time it tastes very bland and mushy. It tastes and feels like fake artificial food." Another reported, "The burgers are dried out and require tons of condiments for flavor; the spaghetti contains water-downed tomato sauce; the macaroni has an unnatural gooey and artificial taste to it; the pizza is so bland, you can find more flavors in cardboard."

Students at one large high school have been collecting signatures on a petition urging the Board of Education to approve the contract with Revolution Foods, stating they "want better quality, and fresher food for our school lunches." Over 500 students from that school have signed the petition.

An elementary school parent is so outraged by your bid protest that she wants to fight back. She wrote on a local parent chat board, "Besides delaying a welcome change in food services, the bid protest will cost the district a significant amount of money as they defend the open bid process. Is there any advocacy we as parents can do to re-coup the costs? Can we file a counter suit? Is there political action that would help?"

I think you need to get the message, Mr. Hecht. The romance is over, we want someone else. All your bid protest has done is generate more bad feeling in the community towards your company. Is this really how you want the relationship to end? Don't be like that pathetic guy in high school who can't accept that his girlfriend had moved on, who hangs around her locker, harassing her and her new boyfriend. Take your loss like a man, move on, and maybe we can still be friends.

Sincerely,

Dana Woldow

Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at PEACHSF.org. Follow her on Twitter @nestwife.