Cash-Strapped Chicago School System Spent Millions on Junk Food

by | September 17, 2015

By Juan Perez Jr.

Chicago Public Schools spent millions of dollars to bring in food and beverages from area restaurants and catering companies, including more than $500,000 since July, and now the district says it crafted new guidelines because "no clear rules" were in place.

On Wednesday, CPS acknowledged it spent roughly $2.9 million on "food from outside vendors" during the budget year that ended June 30. Nearly half was spent by the district's central office bureaucracy. And lackluster record-keeping meant more than a third of the money couldn't be properly accounted for, the district said.

The disclosure comes as the cash-strapped district's recently installed leadership team has sought to publicize its efforts to cut expenses after approving a new budget that relies on a $480 million bailout from state lawmakers. If the state rescue fails to arrive, the district has said it would have to resort to costly borrowing and midyear layoffs.

The district's review of some of its food spending was spurred by a public records request for some of last year's restaurant expenditures. The Chicago Sun-Times reported that CPS waited at least two months to provide the information.

During that time, the district did a "preliminary review" of its food spending, according to the newspaper, and released the invoices at the same time it publicized the new rules on buying outside food.

CPS declined to provide its "preliminary review." A Chicago Tribune look at CPS purchasing records found morsels of CPS' eating habits during the previous budget year, including:

--Roughly $501,000 paid to the firm that operates the Alonti Cafe and Catering company.

--More than $200,000 to Subway.

--More than $189,000 to Corky's Catering company.

--Roughly $144,000 to Connie's Pizza.

--Nearly $108,400 to Lee N' Eddie's catering company.

--Roughly $98,000 to Clark Catering.

--More than $83,000 to Restaurant Depot.

--More than $81,000 to Potbelly Sandwich Works.

--Close to $70,000 to Panera Bread.

--Roughly $56,800 to Amazing Edibles.

--Nearly $55,500 to Dave & Buster's.

--Nearly $54,000 to an individual who operates The Grill Catering & Delivery company.

--More than $52,200 to Wishbone restaurant.

Amid the review, the district spent more than $500,000 since July 1 on outside food and beverages, records show. That includes more than $135,500 to Alonti, roughly $74,000 to Dave & Buster's, nearly $65,700 to Panera Bread and more than $58,600 to Subway.

During the review, the district said it found that "In the past, there were no clear rules in place about food spending."

Now, the district's central office staff can't use CPS money to buy food and drink for events such as department meetings. Other limits on spending for "education and professional development related events" have been enacted, according to the district.

Food and beverage costs are now only allowed for student activities if the events are longer than four hours or occur during normal mealtimes. Similar restrictions are in place for parent events, the district said. All of the purchases, the district said, must now be approved in advance by a supervisor.

"In our challenging budget climate, we can't waste money on unacceptable and undocumented Central Office food expenses," CPS CEO Forrest Claypool said in a statement.

(c)2015 the Chicago Tribune