A New Vision for Healthy School Lunches Becomes a Reality in One CPS School

September 28, 2009 | Written By:

By Mark Bishop, Deputy Director

We were recently invited to join staff at Von Steuben High School in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) for lunch. It was the roll out of a new school lunch concept called Environments, which CPS partner Chartwells-Thompson Hospitality explains “encourages students to make good meal choices and promotes wellness in the cafeteria, in the classroom and at home.”  It was a great meal, and it shows what we could have — if we had the funding. First a little context.


CPS has contracted with Chartwells-Thompson Hospitality for their food service for the past couple of years. Over that time, they have made some significant changes in the lunch program including eliminating trans fats, removing all deep fryers from kitchens, eliminating whole milk (except where medically necessary), piloting cut fruit programs and salad bars, making locally grown flash-frozen veggies and fruit available all year round and more. The CPS lunch program still needs major improvements, but they’ve come a long way. And all of this is being done in the context of a very limited budget. 

The School Nutrition Association estimates that on average, schools lose about $0.35 per meal, but in large urban districts like Chicago — where labor and overhead are so much more expensive — the loss is closer to $0.70 per meal. And in programs such as Environments, it’s even more.

The Environments program at Von Steuben High School is essentially a pilot: a vision of what we could have. A vision of healthful, tasty food. The format is similar to a food court where you have choices: salads, Chinese food, deli bar, pizza and more. And when you walk through the line, you get the feeling that it’s a quality cafeteria — I mean to say, I had no hesitation about eating the food at all. The salads were fresh, the veggies were colorful, the prepared foods didn’t look greasy or as if they were sitting around for a long time. It didn’t fit the stereotype of “school lunch” — rather, it was a collection of freshly prepared, well-presented, healthful options.

My lunch: I ate a freshly made salad of cut greens, corn, tomatoes, black beans and grilled cut chicken. I tried the pizza — made with whole wheat crust and low fat cheese — and a side of locally grown steamed zucchini. I topped this off with a small chocolate chip cookie and a fresh pear. 

The meal was good. Really good. I’d eat there again in a heartbeat.

But this concept is in only one school of the 650 in CPS. And that’s just not enough. The problem is that this meal costs too much for CPS to serve anywhere, let alone everywhere.

However, this meal is a real vision of what school lunches could be if we had the funding to support it.

What would it take for large urban districts to be able to offer meals like this to all students? Meals that students and staff would want to eat, meals that would increase lunch participation at schools? Meals that even my mom would even be happy that I ate. 

It would probably take an additional $1 per school meal. Sounds like petty cash, but that’s real big money. And that’s what we could have if we properly fund the Child Nutrition Act when it comes up for re-authorization.

This year Congress will have an opportunity to move our nation’s school meals in this direction with the re-authorization of the Child Nutrition Act. To learn more and urge your elected leaders to take advantage of this opportunity to change the future of school meals, click here

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