July 30, 2020 by HCDE-Texas
In late spring as school districts shut down from the pandemic, Choice Partners food co-op assistant director Trisha Prestigiacomo began to worry about how the districts would be able to feed hungry kids.
Food is purchased through the co-op annually by school districts in the Harris County area for more than 85 million student lunches through contracts available through Harris County Department of Education’s Choice Partners cooperative.
Although those food contracts were not interrupted by COVID-19, the needs of the districts changed as food service options went mobile.
District co-op members needed easy to prepare and deliver food products so students might continue to be fed in their communities through federally funded programs. Curbside feeding was established at many districts. Demand for individually wrapped, thaw-and-serve and heat-and-serve items continued to increase.
“School districts could use bulk products, but individually wrapped and easy to serve products were scarce and on short supply as manufacturers tried to meet demands nationally,” Prestigiacomo said.
The phone calls and emails continued as some companies had problems keeping up with demand. Some manufacturing plants had to shut down due to COVID-19 outbreaks. Districts also continued to call, looking for prepackaged goods.
As Prestigiacomo embarked on new territory via the school lunch frontier, she had an idea she thought might work.
Her team created a survey which was sent to area school district clients. Based on need, the co-op put together a request for proposal (RFP) for the type of products needed by the districts, including individually wrapped items and meal kits created by food vendors for breakfast and lunch. Included in the RFP are personal protective equipment like gloves, face masks and sanitizer. The RFP products should be available after Aug. 19.
An example of the meal kits includes a breakfast packaged with juice box, wrapped wholegrain muffin and raisins. A lunch might include a calzone, milk and a fruit bar.
As early as August, many school districts begin the school year with virtual instruction. The conventional school cafeteria may no longer be an option for most districts due to COVID-19 risks. Students will continue to be fed, but many of those meals may be accomplished curbside or outside the school building, Prestigiacomo explained.
On the flip side, some districts will have options for in-person instruction but will limit access to the cafeteria, opting to serve students in the classrooms or through restricted access to the cafeteria.
Contracts will be in place so that school districts may order the products they need quickly from 29 vendors who were awarded based on their products and the needs of Choice Partners members. Delivery can be made directly to the district. Even though districts will still buy in bulk, meals will be portioned so they can be distributed on the go.
“No one really knows what the big picture is, but everyone is problem-solving as we go,” she said.
To date, co-op officials believe they are one of the first co-ops in the state to be proactive to attend to the COVID-19 specific needs of districts and municipalities seeking food service options on the go and coronavirus supply solutions, all in one RFP.
The contracts can also mean measurable, fixed cost-savings for districts over food distributors, who typically mark-up pricing.
“Even though this emergency feeding RFP was built based on COVID-19, the need could go on longer than expected with natural disasters that can occur,” Prestigiacomo said.
Prestigiacomo predicts she will hear from some districts inside and outside of Harris County and perhaps in other states as they look for prepackaged goods to meet the unique needs of districts during COVID-19.
“Our districts can find the products they need now and later easily and buy them through legally bid contracts in order to feed their kids,” she said.
Choice Partners purchasing cooperative offers quality, legal procurement and contract solutions to meet government purchasing requirements. Food products are a vital part of the co-op as school districts and municipalities look for convenience and buying power.
Jeff Drury, director for Choice Partners, oversees the full gamut of operations for the co-op, which includes construction job order contracting to consulting services. He is impressed by his staff’s ingenuity in the food co-op area of Choice.
“These times and circumstances are unprecedented for everyone,” Drury said. “Trisha and her team are doing the things necessary to accommodate our members’ returning students and child nutrition staff to provide safe and nutritional meals.”
(The 700-plus vendors in Choice Partners co-op offer services ranging from food supplies and equipment to construction job order contracting to consulting services. An approximate 1,500 members benefit from time and money saved, plus legally bid contracts. For more information about Choice Partners and the buying power through the co-op, go to www.choicepartners.org or www.hcde-texas.org.)