Chicago Public Schools Serves Freshly-Baked Chicken Raised Without Antibiotics: Big News for Food Sy

November 01, 2011

by Mark Bishop, vice president of policy + communications

Today, Chicago Public Schools is serving a new type of chicken. While you may recall that CPS just recently began serving fresh chicken from the USDA, this is a new and different story. CPS is now serving chicken raised without antibiotics, from an Amish family farm in nearby Indiana. The press release explains:

Chicago Public Schools (CPS) today began serving local chicken raised without antibiotics to students in 473 schools. This development comes on the heels of a fresh chicken purchase direct from the USDA earlier this fall. The district's new scratch-cooked chicken program includes about 1.2 million pounds from Amish farms that do not use antibiotics, for a total of about two million pounds of fresh chicken in the 2011-12 school year. Students will be offered bone-in chicken two to three times each month.

 

CPS' enormous purchase of chicken grown without antibiotics, made through food service provider Chartwells-Thompson Hospitality, is the first of its kind. No other district in the nation is serving this kind of poultry regularly at such a scale.

For those with an interest in food systems, the story behind this chicken is a fascinating one.

With the help of partners including HSC, the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming, School Food FOCUS, Chartwells-Thompson Hospitality and Whole Foods, CPS identified a market opportunity and is taking advantage of it. In short, Miller Poultry, a small Amish farm in Indiana, sells much of its chicken breast meat to Whole Foods and much of its thigh meat to Chipotle restaurants. It turns out that there isn’t much of a market for the drumsticks, especially because the drumsticks are on the smaller size (about 2 ounces each). But small chicken drumsticks are a perfect fit for kids. CPS was able to use the Whole Foods distribution network and purchase these drumsticks at a price that they could afford.  And now we have, at least once a month, fresh baked chicken drumsticks for most of CPS.

While the systems behind raising and delivering this chicken is a big part of the story, another big part is what CPS is doing with the chicken once it reaches schools. A baked chicken meal a few weeks ago marked the first time in recent memory that meat prepared from scratch had been served in CPS. In a Chicago Tribune story today, Monica Eng explains:

School caterers have long avoided raw meat for food safety reasons, but upcoming USDA guidelines encourage a return to less processed foods with lower sodium in school lunches.

“Two years ago I would have said that there is no way I'm ever bringing in raw chicken into our schools,” said Bob Bloomer, of Chartwells-Thompson, which caters the 473 CPS schools that will be serving the chicken. (A second company, Preferred Meal Systems, caters about a third of CPS schools but is not part of the program.)

 

“But we trained all the (CPS) cooks and managers before school started this past August to bring them up to speed on how to safely handle chicken from the time it comes into the back door to the time it's served to students on the plate,” Bloomer said. “And we actually created a training DVD for ongoing education.”

 

That training paid off when the district served its first bone-in chicken quarters to students last month in a recipe created by celebrity cook Rachael Ray called Yum-O! Windy City Chicken. Future preparations will include lemon chicken, barbecued chicken and preparation using Asian spices.

The story goes on to quote Laura Stanley of School Food FOCUS. “The amazing thing is how the school smells like real food, like delicious roasting chicken,” she said.

I had the same reaction. While CPS made the announcement today, they actually served the chicken for the first time last week at a few schools. Luckily for me, I was able to join my son at his CPS elementary school and give the new chicken a try.

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When I walked into the cafeteria that morning, it smelled like my home kitchen when we’re making dinner. To me, that’s the best part of this story: a big, diverse group of partners working together to make the school cafeteria a place where kids get nourishing food they love, a place that smells like a delicious and freshly-baked lunch.

Of course schools’ main mission is to help kids learn, so I’ll share this quote from CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard: “I want to ensure that CPS children have the best nutritional options possible because it impacts their ability to be more successful in the classroom,” he said. “Offering fresh chicken on school menus is another step we've taken to improve the quality of food served to our children and we will continue to bring more fresh, high-quality food options moving forward.”

Kudos to CPS, Chartwells-Thompson and the many partners — from the farmers to the advisors to the school dining managers who prepared the chicken — who have made this big step possible. We'll continue to share updates in the weeks ahead!

Plus: Check out coverage of this milestone in Wired, Education Week and The Hill