In my last whistleblower lawyer blog post, I talked about a man who stood
up to food service giant Chartwells, ultimately forcing it to repay
$19.4 million to kids in the District of Columbia school system.
Turns out that fraud by school lunch providers is more widespread than
you might think.
The D.C. case was brought by whistleblower Jeffrey Mills, who was fired
by his own school system for protesting the system. Mills spent years
pursuing a False Claims Act lawsuit against food service provider Chartwells
for serving inedible, rotten food to schoolchildren, and understaffing
the lunchroom to such an extent that some kids were not able to get lunch
at all before they had to move along to their next class. Mills said that
the contractor was
not conforming to the contractit had made with the D.C. school system. Mills also settled a retaliation
case against the D.C. school system.
Mills and the D.C. schoolkids are not the only ones to have been dissatisfied
* Chartwells handles the food service at
Farmington High School in Connecticut, and this past school year students posted photos of food that had molded
or had bugs, and a chicken breast that had been served raw. Many of the
photos leave you scratching your head and wondering – just what
is that food, anyway? Some of them show food that looks more like gulag-style
mush than something you would expect an American school to serve to its
students. Students also said that Chartwells had harsh policies for students
who ran out of money on their student accounts. Outraged – and hungry
— students organized a boycott and brought their own lunches for a week.
The Washington Post coined the perfect term: the students were “hangry.”
In response, Chartwells agreed to allow the students to charge up to two
meals on credit, and the school got a new microwave.
Is it just me, or does that “resolution” seem to ignore the
fundamental problem – which was the food that was being served?
Anyway, we don’t know whether Chartwells was listening, but for
sure the school district was not. They re-upped Chartwell’s contract
this month, signing them on for another year.
In 2009, Lucy Schiffman posted an article in The Trinity Tripod, talking about
problems with food service provided by Chartwells.
Chartwells handled food services at her school, Trinity College, in Hartford,
Connecticut. Chartwells sold the students meal plans that provided a certain
number of meals in a semester. The meals did not roll over; students who
did not use all of their meals simply lost out. Schiffman said that toward
the end of the semester, just as students were realizing that they had
not used up the meals on their plan, Chartwells made it difficult to redeem
the meals before the plan as it expired. She said Chartwells closed some
food shops and limited or altered the hours on others. Students had as
many as 70 to 80 meals left over, which of course dramatically increased
the price of their average meals – and just as dramatically increased
the profit margin for Chartwells.
Chartwells may be the most recent food service company to come under legal
fire, but it is by no means the only one.
In 2010, food service giant Sodexo paid $20,000,000 to 21 New York public
school districts and the State University of New York. According to Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, because Sodexo was such a big
buyer in the food industry, it was getting big rebates on the food it
bought. Sodexo’s contracts with New York said that the food service
company had to pass these rebates on to the state’s schools. Instead,
Cuomo said, Sodexo pocketed the rebates it got from the food vendors.