Pathways to Excellence in School Food: Sustainable, Local Chicken

August 13, 2013

How CPS changed its chicken, for the better.

School food programs across the country are trying to reinvent themselves in response to the critical health needs of students. Over the past year, Healthy Schools Campaign has been working with the Chicago Public Schools to develop a comprehensive plan to achieve excellence in their school meal program. This plan centers around 10 interconnected pathways that are critical to success of every school food program.

This week, we highlight efforts relating to procurement. Click here to learn more about the 10 pathways to excellence in school food and to read about Chicago Public Schools’ action plans for achieving excellence in school nutrition.

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In 2011, CPS recognized the need to reexamine its supply chain to replace the readily available, often-served and popular chicken nugget. In partnership with School Food FOCUS, a national organization focused on local and sustainable food procurement, and HSC, a longtime local partner, CPS embarked on a project to rethink chicken.

The goal was to find an affordable source of locally and sustainably raised chicken. Partners turned to the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming to help define “sustainably raised.” Whole Foods Market provided an understanding of the local chicken market and introduced CPS to one of its suppliers, Miller Poultry. Miller Poultry chickens are raised without the use of antibiotics by Amish farmers in northeast Indiana. It turned out that Miller Poultry sold much of its chicken breast meat to Whole Foods Market and much of its thigh meat to Chipotle restaurants, but did not have a good market for legs. CPS was able to purchase these drumsticks at a price it could afford. And now, at least once a month, CPS elementary students enjoy this healthy and tasty chicken.

CPS’ purchase of 1.2 million pounds of these drumsticks was the first of its kind. No other district in the nation is serving this kind of poultry regularly at such a scale. Building on the momentum of this connection with local producers, Chicago Public Schools put scratch-cooked, unprocessed chicken on the lunch menu at 473 elementary and secondary schools.

Not only did the purchase of 1.2 million pounds of locally-grown fresh drumsticks support nutritional needs of the many students eating school meals, it also addressed a public health concern stemming from the overuse of antibiotics in livestock and contributed to the sustainability of school lunch. Len Neeb, sales manager for Miller Poultry, said teachers would often tell him how excited the students were about the chicken. He said the initiative was a win on all levels, giving a local supplier an avenue for providing wholesome, fresh food to students in an environmentally responsible manner.

CPS plans to continue this work in the coming school year and beyond. One of the key items in the procurement action plan the School Food Advisory Groups created was to expand the procurement of antibiotic-free chicken and the local produce program to all schools. As part of the new school food service contract, CPS will expand the local and sustainable purchasing program to ensure all students will receive this fresh, healthy food.

Read more about the Pathways to Excellence in School Nutrition report and download it.