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Brown: CPS’s new milk delivery system better than cheesy old contract

Frank J. McMah| Sun-Times files

Frank J. McMahon | Sun-Times files

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Updated: July 26, 2013 6:38AM

For two decades, the politically-connected McMahon family has had held a tight grip — some would say chokehold — on the lucrative business of providing milk to Chicago’s school children.

That is due to change Wednesday when the Chicago Board of Education is expected to vote to approve a new food service contract that will combine food and milk under one vendor.

Until now, Chicago Public Schools officials say, this was one of the only school systems in the country to buy its milk separately from the rest of its food service — necessitating separate deliveries.

One result, Chicago Public School officials say, is that CPS was paying 24 cents for each half pint carton of milk, compared to a national industry average of just 19-20 cents a carton.

The new combined food service contract calls for CPS to pay $97 million next year to Aramark — a savings of $12 million over this year. CPS officials attribute $4 million of that savings to the milk part of the equation.

In announcing the contract via press release Monday, schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett put the emphasis on the savings as an example of the steps CPS is taking to minimize the classroom impact of budget-cutting necessitated by a $1 billion deficit.

As you may know, I’ve been writing about how the impact of those cuts is still shaping up as painful for many schools.

What caught my attention in this case, though, was the impact on the smelly milk contract, exposed last year by the Sun-Times’ Watchdog columnists while working in conjunction with the Better Government Association.

The Dogs, as we sometimes refer to them around here, prompted a CPS inspector general investigation with their report on how Chicago schools were paying higher prices for milk than suburban districts, despite the vastly greater volume.

The contract has been held by a joint venture controlled by McMahon Food Corp., whose principal owner, Frank J. McMahon, was a prominent political supporter of powerful Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th.)

The company had been certified as a woman-owned business, giving it an advantage in the procurement process. Not coincidentally, another McMahon family company, Windy City Electric Co., was later permanently banned from City Hall for fraudulently claiming to be woman-owned.

Frank McMahon, whose nickname was “Milkman” and owned a boat called “Milk Money,” died in September. The City Council honored McMahon with a memorial resolution. McMahon’s father started the milk business in the 1940s.

Despite their influence on the Chicago milk scene, the McMahons never operated a dairy. Their control emanated from their role as distributors, operating an extensive fleet of refrigerated trucks that made regular deliveries to 600 city schools along with other customers.

Under Aramark’s bid proposal, CPS will now obtain its milk from Preferred Meal Systems, a food-service provider based in west suburban Berkeley that already provides meals to 176 CPS sites.

CPS officials say it is their expectation that Preferred Meal Systems will deliver the milk with the rest of the food after receiving it directly from local dairies — Dean Foods and Prairie Farms.

A source familiar with the bidding process said that two of the three losing bidders had listed McMahon as their milk supplier.

Now, I’m not so naïve to think the McMahons won’t yet try to figure out a way to back door this. The company has worked with Aramark in the past on the Cook County Jail contract.

But for now, at least, CPS officials say they do not expect to see McMahon drivers making the rounds of the schools.

CPS spokesman Becky Carroll said procurement officials did not set out to exclude McMahon from the contract, only to eliminate the inefficient system of making two separate deliveries to each school.

In addition, combining the milk with the other food commodities allowed the bidders to take advantage of their national buying power to get the best price, officials said.

The contract, which is for one year with four renewable one-year options, will also mean that all Chicago school children will be eating from the same daily menu.

I can’t say whether the food will go down any better with the kids, but the food service contract should be easier for taxpayers to swallow.

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