Chicago’s Public Schools Spent Millions on Catered Food But Don’t Know Who Ate It

Chicago's strapped-for-cash public schools have been blowing millions on sandwiches and pizza for office lunches without keeping track of who's spending.
September 17, 2015, 2:14pm
Photo via Flickr user Young Sok Hun

The Chicago public school system, like so many others across the nation, is excruciatingly strapped for cash. In fact, the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, Forrest Claypool, describes the school system's fiscal environment as a "challenging budget climate." In case you weren't aware, that's code for: " We're so fucked. Vodka party in the teachers' lounge!"

But that doesn't mean that employees in the central office of the CPS aren't having a fine time ordering in food on the public dime. Evidently, there were "no clear rules" in place for the expenditure of public money on lavish office lunches. And so, the school system office workers indulged.

READ: This Mom Says a School Humiliated Her Children with Cheese Sandwiches

Chicago Public Schools spent roughly $2.9 million ordering in from area restaurants and catering companies during the budget year that ended on June 30. More than half of this money was spent by the central office bureaucracy and not on or for schoolchildren.

The "outside vendors" from which the food was ordered? The big winner was Alonti Cafe and Catering, which made half a million dollars off of the school system. Here's one "Venetian premium sandwich" from their menu, according to their website: "Buttermilk Baked Chicken on a jalapeño-cheddar roll, bacon, poblano peppers, caramelized onions, American cheese, spring mix, chipotle horseradish, and honey mustard spread." Cost: $75. Serves 6.

It would be a safe bet that kids in Chicago's schools aren't eating sandwiches half as nice as that.

Other beneficiaries of the CPS's lavish lunches were Corky's Catering Company (more than $189,000), Connie's Pizza (around $144,000), and Clark Catering (almost $100,000). Still others including Panera Bread, Amazing Edibles, and Potbelly Sandwich Works.

And, perhaps worst of all, is that one third of the money spent was improperly accounted for. In other words, no one has any clue where, or by whom, it was spent.

The school system's taste for in-office dining came to light thanks to a public records request by the Chicago Sun-Times. The inquiry came at the worst possible time for the pressed-for-cash district, whose newfound leadership team has been struggling desperately to publicize its cost-cutting efforts. The pressure is due to the district's reliance on a $480 million bailout from state lawmakers, which was supposed to solve their financial woes. Could the district's admission about these food expenditures jeopardize the bailout? If so, the district says it would be forced to resort to "mid-year layoffs and costly loans."

But even after the school system knew that an inquiry had been made into its food expenditures, it still kept spending: $400,000 over the past two and a half months on outside food and beverages. That amount includes more than $58,600 on Subway alone.

READ: A Chinese High School Served Food So Bad It Started a Riot

New rules—or should we just say "rules," as there don't appear to have been any before—have now been put in place. Office staff can't use school system money to buy food and drink for department meetings. Food and beverage spending is only allowed for student activities that are "longer than four hours or occur during normal mealtimes." Plus, purchases must be approved in advance.

So, it seems that the gravy train in the Chicago school system has come to an end. And it may be time for the school system's office workers to start brown-bagging it.