TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: The hand that feeds you is sometimes begging for a good biting

Few services that schools and colleges offer have as much gut-level impact — literally — as campus dining. And few contracts that schools and colleges award to private vendors are as lucrative as those for food services.

That combination — enormous sums of money, fiercely competitive vendors, and an essential service on which students rely for sustenance — means that the business side of food services deserves close journalistic scrutiny.

In the absence of transparency and disclosure, here is what happens: One of the leading food-service vendors, seeking to retain its contract with the University of Central Arkansas, sweetened its bid with an offer that UCA President Allen C. Meadors couldn’t refuse: A $700,000 “donation” to upgrade his mansion. It would’ve been a lovely house — but Meadors won’t be living in it.

The contracts that public schools and colleges have with food-service giants such as Aramark, Chartwells and Sodexo are a matter of public record, as is the contracting process. It’s worth asking such questions as: When was the last time our dining contract was re-bid? How many companies submitted proposals? Did the school accept the cheapest bid — and if not, why not? And were any incentives offered or paid in conjunction with the deal?

Federal and state regulators are scrutinizing (and journalists should, too) whether food suppliers are properly passing on the savings they receive when buying supplies in bulk. Federal law requires that “rebates” paid to vendors by food wholesalers be passed along to the federal government, which heavily underwrites school lunch programs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which oversees federal school-lunch subsidies, requires that school food contracts include a rebate-sharing provision. But auditors have detected widespread cheating, and at least one state, New York, has exacted millions in repayments.

Correspondence between the school and the food vendor — including correspondence about pricing and about rebates — should be obtainable through an open-records request, as should any school-level or state-level audit reports. The USDA’s audits and Inspector General reports are likewise a matter of public record, and if not posted online, should be readily available on request.