Michigan Education Association

Food service workers dish up savings

Don and Jill WoodStevie Ruppert, left, and Helen Loop are cooks in the Pine River school district.

After privatizing the management of its food service operation resulted in cost overruns, the Pine River Area Schools school board took a bold step.

It allowed the cooks—still district employees— to run the program instead. Within months, the cooks turned things around financially. Ten years later, they’re still dishing up major savings. “I don’t know why everybody doesn’t just do this,” said Helen Loop, head cook at LeRoy Elementary School in Osceola County.

Pine River’s experiment with privatization began in the late 1990s. With the retirement of a supervisor, district officials hired a private company to oversee food service, hoping to save money. Employees, assured they would remain on the district payroll, were told they wouldn’t notice many changes.

“We didn’t think it was a big deal,” Loop recalls.

A “nonworking” manager employed by the private company was assigned to Pine River to plan menus, order food, and take care of the books. She didn’t cook food or serve students, as the district manager had done for years, Loop said.

Despite assurances, the employees noticed changes soon after the private company was hired, said Stevie Ruppert, head cook at Luther Elementary.

Restrictions on how much food students could receive were introduced. Some student favorites were eliminated from the menu altogether. And while some cooks were able to order special products that students enjoyed— such as pudding or dip for chicken, others were told they couldn’t order them at all, Ruppert said.

Loop, president of the Pine River Educational Support Personnel Association at the time, figured the employees had to act. Having attended workshops at MEA conferences about privatization, she decided to develop an alternative plan.

What Loop, Ruppert and the cooks and a cashier came up with is a unique alternative to outsourcing.

The workers spent several weeks in late 1999 developing a plan to run the food service program themselves, with the superintendent directly overseeing the employees.

The workers shared the idea with key community members. They invited school board members, influential parents, and others into their homes to explain the problems with the private management company—cost overruns, unacceptable menu options, poor management—and then suggested that they could do better.

“We just gave them all the facts,” Loop said. “They could’ve looked it up if they wanted to.” Despite doubts from the district’s then-superintendent, the school board opted not to renew the private company’s contract. The employees took over the food operation in January 2000.

When the annual financial audit was completed later that year, the proof was in the numbers. The audit for the 1998-1999 school year reported a negative balance of about $33,500; the 1999-2000 audit showed a $8,597 balance.

Every year since, the employees have managed to operate the food program in the black—and they’ve cleared enough money to purchase new kitchen equipment, including refrigerators, dishwashers and salad bars. “We’re like our own bosses and we love it,” Loop said. Added Ruppert: “It’s wonderful.”

The key, they said, is the employees, who work very hard to make the arrangement work. Each of the Pine River employees was on board with the plan to take control of the program—and they all agreed to help.

“You’ve got to want to make it work,” she said.


Updated: October 27, 2009 1:19 PM

No privatization button