The Union R-XI School District is seeing a major uptick in interest in bidding for its food services.

The last time the district put its food services out for bid, before the 2016-17 school year, only two companies bid. At the district’s Nov. 18 board of education meeting, Assistant Superintendent Dr. Mike Mabe said eight companies are interested in bidding for the next contract, which starts with the 2020-21 school year.

“We didn’t have near the interest five years ago,” Mabe told the board. “It was a different makeup of our country too. A lot of remote learning (now), a lot of kids not going to cafeterias.”

“Colleges, office buildings — they aren’t running now,” Superintendent Dr. Steve Weinhold added.

The district is nearing the end of a five-year agreement with Chartwells K12, of Charlotte, N.C., which was approved Sept. 1, 2016.

“It’s just crazy to believe that it’s been five years, it just seems like yesterday we started our partnership with them,” Mabe said. “We are currently out to bid. It’s basically a two-month process.”

Potential bidders were planning to visit the district Wednesday, Dec. 2. Proposals are expected to be in by the January board meeting, according to Mabe.

Board members were surprised by how many companies are interested in food service management.

“I didn’t realize there were eight companies out there that did that,” Board President Dr. Virgil Weideman said.

In 2016, Chartwells and Opaa! Food Management Inc., of Chesterfield, were the only bidders for Union R-XI food service, according to Missourian archives. The district agreed to pay Chartwells a total of $3.6 million, a price that was locked in even if food prices rose. That was $9,360 less than Opaa!’s bid.

Prices included students’ breakfasts and lunches, adult meals, a la cart items and snacks.

A key to going with Chartwells in 2016 was that company transferring a food service director with 15 years’ experience from another district, Weinhold said at the time.

Changes implemented by Chartwells included the installation of new on-the-go kiosks, which offer a variety of quick, healthy options, at Union High School.

Chartwells’ chefs and dieticians developed the menu specifically for Union to include a variety of healthy options for students to choose from. Menus were created using student input from surveys, samplings and conversations with students, as well as local food trends, flavors and produce.

Prior to 2016, Union R-XI operated its own food service program.

In December 2016, Mabe announced the district had saved more than $58,000 by switching to a food management company. The district was $21,000 in the red running its own program.