Des Moines school officials say they can’t confirm whether the $11.3 million the district spent on a plan to prepare meals at a central kitchen has delivered on the promised savings, reports the Des Moines Register. The central kitchen opened in 2004 with the anticipation that it would save about $1.3 million annually, or about a tenth of the district’s food and nutrition budget.
Now, school officials say that those savings, supposedly derived from lower labor costs and increased participation due to more menu variety, cannot be quantified because of variables such as inflation and the weak economy. According to district documents examined by the Register, Des Moines schools increased the number of meals (breakfasts and lunches) served daily from about 25,500 in 2001 to 31,000 in 2007-08, though a consultant engaged by the district to study the impact of central production predicted the daily count would be close to 42,000. In addition, the cost per meal produced has increased in the same period, from $2.20 to $2.82 while staffing dropped from 386 to 362.
All of the top administrators who had pushed through the central kitchen project, including Superintendent Eric Witherspoon, no longer work for the school district.
Before the central kitchen opened, the district had production kitchens at 13 school sites from which food was satellited to other schools. Those kitchens have continued to get millions of dollars in upgrades since the central kitchen has been in operation, paid for with money from a sales tax increase passed in 1999 that was intended to fund the building and renovating of the district's schools. The issue was at the center of a lawsuit, later dismissed, charging the district misused tax monies on the central kitchen project.