Chicken Raised Without Antibiotics in School Food: What’s the Big Deal, and What You Can Do

July 12, 2012

Last year, Chicago Public Schools purchased 1.2 million pounds of locally sourced chicken raised without antibiotics to be scratch-cooked for lunch in the city’s schools. WIRED blogger and journalist Maryn McKenna lauded this effort as “a major step in protecting [Chicago] students, students’ families, and the rest of society as well.”

It puts economic force behind the movement to drag very large-scale agriculture away from antibiotic use. There has never been any scientific debate about the way that antibiotic overuse on farms increases the presence of resistant bacteria in the environment (for evidence, see this decades-long bibliography). It’s always been a question of politics and economics — and until recently, the economics have been on the side of the antibiotic-using producers. An investment like this could begin to tip the scale in the other direction.

It also brings real food back into schools: This chicken will be cooked in the schools themselves. Preparing raw chicken in school kitchens, which until recently might have lacked real ovens or trained cooks, is a significant step — but it also promises a huge improvement in  kids’ nutrition during the day over the pre-formed nuggets and patties they would otherwise get.

Cooking up Change Chicago healthy cooking contest student chefs won first place in this competition with oven fried chicken created with the antibiotic-free chicken that CPS purchased from Miller Farms. (The teens then went on a field trip to Miller Poultry Farms to learn how chicken is raised without antibiotics, its healthfulness, and how it is produced.)  In May, the team took their lunch to the Cooking up Change national finals, where they received honorable mention. More importantly, the student chefs walked away with valuable leadership skills and a platform to speak up for healthy school food. The team has advocated for antibiotic-free food production and healthy school food by speaking at briefings on Capitol Hill, and met with Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel.

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Cooking up Change Chicago student-created meal features chicken raised without antibiotics

Chicago Public Schools’ effort demonstrates how private and public sectors can work together to support health. Industrial food production, a significant contributor to increased antibiotic resistance, plays a major role in what we see on our plates (or trays), both in and outside of schools. The move by CPS to purchase chicken raised without antibiotics shows that it can be both beneficial and practical for large school districts to focus on food that is grown and raised in a way that promotes health. 

What can you do as an individual to speak up for food raised without antibiotics? The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently released draft guidelines to decrease antibiotics in food production. While we applaud this measure, it can go further. The proposed standards allow the use of antibiotics for industrial farm animals to compensate for overcrowding and unsanitary living conditions. You can join the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming in urging the FDA to strengthen these guidelines. Click here to send a letter to the FDA today.