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Wednesday, December 13 Local

Temperatures rise over bread contract with Bridgeport schools

BRIDGEPORT — Hand-kneaded Portuguese dinner rolls ride on a conveyor belt that snakes through a 65,000 square foot industrial bakery on State Street. Hundreds of them.

The journey is slow enough to allow the dough to rest and double in size before sliding through an oven and out the other side a golden brown.

Then it’s up to the ceiling and back again on a 35-foot high spiral cooler. Packaging comes much later in the evening.

“They are hand-made because customers still want them that way,” Vito Catale, vice president of sales and general manager at Chaves Bakery, shouts above the din of large custom-made equipment. “We have to accommodate them. It is what Chaves is famous for.”

In a corner, flour from silos is piped into computerized mixers that churn out dinner rolls, Italian rounds, muffins and more. They are baked goods destined for supermarkets, hospitals and a number of school districts including Stamford, Waterbury and Wallingford.

None, though, will find their way onto the lunch menu next door at Cesar Batalla School or across the street at Bassick High School. Unless the district’s attorneys say differently.

The local bakery that put it roots in Bridgeport 38 years ago lost its contract to supply baked goods to the city school district; instead, the district went with Calisse and Sons, a Rhode Island firm.

Nutrition Director Sharlene Wong said Chaves didn’t make a bid on a contract she put out in August — the third solicitation put out by the district since June. The district uses several bakery vendors.

The first solicitation for hamburger rolls, bread sticks and buns was withdrawn and amended because it requested just frozen bread. The district wanted fresh and frozen.

On the second try in July, Chaves’s bid was the lowest but deemed non-compliant by Wong.

“If nutritional standards don’t meet USDA standards ... we won’t be serving reimbursable meals,” Wong warned when she explained to members of the school board’s finance committee this month why she went out to bid a third time.

Half baked

Board Member Maria Pereira doesn’t buy it. She claims the whole process was improperly handled since the contracts did not go to the school board for its OK.

“We should cancel the contract and give it to Chaves,” Pereira told the committee.

After the second bid in July, everyone saw the submitted prices, Catale said. Chaves was the lowest but then was asked for things not in the bid package, including invoices for two years worth of flour to prove it was purchased in the United States.

Catale said Chaves has been supplying some baked goods to the district for more than two years and is fully complaint with government nutrition standards.

Bread consumption is still strong in school districts but portions are smaller, Catale said. Many districts now call for 2 and even 1.5 ounce wheat rolls to help stay within nutrition guidelines.

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Catale said owner John Chaves loves the Bridgeport community.

“If you can’t serve your own community, you should be ashamed of yourself,” Catale said.

The contract to supply the city school district with bread, rolls and baked goods is said to be worth more than $120,000 a year, according to the school nutrition office.

‘Dumpster fire’

Any school district contract more than $25,000 is supposed to go to the school board for approval.

But Schools Superintendent Aresta Johnson said that the usual practice is not to do so for any nutrition department contract — at least since before she became superintendent earlier this year and Wong became director of food and nutrition services a year ago.

Recently, several school board members have pushed to steer business to local vendors but were told they could not do so legally other than to make sure local vendors were notified of bid solicitations.

Wong said she followed the city charter and purchasing requirements in soliciting the bid.

“We are required to have a responsible bidder and a compliant bidder,” she said. The district’s attorneys were asked to look into the dispute.

Wong said surveys of the bread served this year came back with mostly positive results. Students at Hooker school called the new bread a hit and the change was noticed. Kids at Bryant School have asked for seconds.

On the other hand, students at Tisdale School complained the new bread was hard and broke easily.

Pereira called the bidding situation problematic and said she plans to raise the issue at an upcoming school board meeting.

Board Member Ben Walker called it a mess.

“This is a dumpster fire,” Walker said when the issue was raised at the committee meeting. “Our contracts should go to the board of education.”

Linda Conner Lambeck|Education Reporter

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