Grade schools to change menu

New food service provider hired

By Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / July 23, 2011

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There will be a new menu in school cafeterias for 21,000 of Boston’s youngest pupils when they return to class at the end of the summer.

The Boston School Department has decided to drop Preferred Meal Systems, the national company that since 2005 has provided precooked, frozen meals to 86 of the city’s schools.

Administrators have awarded a three-year, $22.5 million contract to Whitsons Culinary Group, a family-run business based on Long Island, N.Y.

The company will mainly serve the elementary schools, which have limited cooking facilities and are essentially warming kitchens for frozen entrees.

Preferred Meal Systems had been criticized by students, parents, and members of the Boston City Council for making its food in a Pennsylvania factory and trucking it hundreds of miles to Boston.

Whitsons will use a similar delivery method, cooking the food elsewhere and transporting meals to the cafeterias, according to Matthew Wilder, a School Department spokesman. The limited cooking facilities make it difficult for a company to do it any other way and still make it cost effective, Wilder said.

“But the difference, we think, is the quality of the food and their willingness to bring in more fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains,’’ Wilder said of Whitsons.

A spokesman for Preferred Meal Systems, which is based in a Chicago suburb, said yesterday that it was company policy not to discuss contracts. A request for comment left by phone at Whitsons was not returned.

The award of the publicly bid contract followed a taste test with administrators and pupils. School nutrition advocates such as Ellen Parker, executive director of the antihunger group Project Bread, welcomed the contract change

“I would say it’s a real win for Boston kids,’’ said Parker, whose group has worked with Boston public schools for some time. I would say that Mayor [Thomas M.] Menino used his authority and political capital. It’s a tough change to make. I think he stood up for the kids.’’

Andrew Ryan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAndrewRyan.