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School department weighs bids for meals contract

Yawu Miller | 5/9/2014, 12:08 p.m.

Isabel Torres has heard the complaints about school lunches from her children — “They’re not warmed, they don’t taste right and they’re not healthy,” she says.

The meals, which are cooked in New York, frozen, then trucked into Boston twice a week, are an important part of the school for experience for many Boston Public Schools students.

And, as Torres points out, for some kids it’s the most important part.

“There are a lot of kids for whom this is their main meal,” she said.

All that will change soon, though, as the school department will be re-bidding its contract for its vended hot and cold meal program. The current contractor, Whitsons Culinary Group, will be bidding against other firms for the $50 million contract to provide meals in the 78 Boston schools that do not have kitchen facilities.

Companies said to be bidding for the contract include Whitsons, Preferred Food, Sodexo and Revolution Foods.

Before the school department selects a vendor, at-large City Councilor Ayanna Pressley wants to give parents, students and other stakeholders a chance to weigh in on the options.

“Students and parents should be able to weigh in while they’re looking for their next vendor,” Pressley said. “I want to hear from the BPS what their criteria are. It has to be about more than the lowest bid.”

Michael Peck, who manages the school department’s vended hot and cold meal program, says new federal regulations will guarantee high quality meals, regardless of the contractor. The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act dictates calorie counts and vegetable content for school meals.

“We have some pretty strict guidelines now,” Peck said. “It’s a very different environment now than when the current contract was written.”

A panel of school officials, parents and students has been meeting over the last month to vet the providers bidding for the school meals contract, taste-testing sample meals from the companies. The school department is looking to conclude the process by the end of the month, according to Peck.