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Food for thought: Privatizing school lunches may impair learning

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Public schools that use private food services may not save much money. Worse yet, they may be hurting student performance, says a University of Michigan researcher.

A new study by Roland Zullo, assistant research scientist at the U-M Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations, suggests that schools in Michigan that use private companies to prepare and serve lunch and often breakfast to their students realize no significant cost savings.

While public schools that privatize their food operations save about 15 percent on labor and 4 percent on food, they end up spending 11 percent more on contractor fees and 4 percent more for supplies, Zullo says.

"If economic savings fail to materialize, then we would expect that districts with private food services would not gain additional classroom resources," said Zullo, who notes that districts with private food-service management have an average of 1.1 more children per teacher. "While I hesitate to conclude that privatization increases class sizes, the results do not indicate that privatizing food services liberates resources for the classroom."

More importantly, the study shows that private food service is associated with a reduction of 1 percent to 3 percent in scores on the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP tests for grades 3-9), after controlling for affluence, school resources and student traits. This is especially true for students in grades 3-5 and with the English, reading and writing tests.

The culprit? Private food services tend to serve more high-fat and high-sugar foods on their a la carte menu.

While these outside firms provide a greater variety of food choices?including more fruits, vegetables, low-fat and nonfat foods and 100-percent fruit juice?they nonetheless, offer up more fried foods and other high-fat entr