Vendor Rebates Limit Choices to Junk and More Junk

Like many food reformers, I started out as an aggravated mother in our local schools. Ten years ago, we had just moved to a new school district and I couldn’t believe the array of junk food in school vending machines, nor could I understand the low quality of school food served in the cafeteria.

It didn’t take long to discover part of the problem. Vendor rebates. Our school district contracted with Aramark. When concerned parents began to work with the Aramark food service director in an effort to make healthy changes, we ran into an obstacle. Even though Aramark is one of the largest food service companies in the nation and was sourcing its food supplies through a huge company called Sysco, our food service director had limited choices.

When parents asked to make suggestions for snacks sold, we were given a catalog from Sysco that listed everything the school district could purchase. The selection was appalling — all junky, processed foods that were manufactured by the same companies. When we asked why Aramark couldn’t purchase other healthier snack options — and we provided a list of suggestions that were easily available in any grocery store — we were told they just couldn’t get them. The catalog was our only choice.

A little investigation revealed why our choices were so slim — vendor rebates. Aramark was apparently limiting its purchases to certain brands to take advantage of volume discounts and vendor rebates. This practice was also in play when it came to ordering other food items and ingredients for the school district and we found that alarming. While we believed the rebates were being passed on to the local taxpayers, that hardly was comforting. The quest for vendor rebates limited the school district’s choices to mostly unhealthy, processed foods.

Vendor rebates, whether the savings are passed on to the school district or not, are damaging. School food workers should be able to purchase the best foods and ingredients from any vendor and not be forced to compromise the health of our kids for what amounts to legalized kickbacks.

That was ten years ago. Perhaps things have changed within Aramark. I certainly hope so. But clearly, the practices of vendor rebates and volume discounts still plague our nation’s schools. I am thrilled that NYS Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is investigating this practice and I hope that his findings help wake up complacent school administrators who have let this practice go on for far too long at the expense of our children’s health.

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