School Food

We believe every student should have access to tasty, nutritious and affordable school meals enjoyed in a pleasant environment. Chicago is well-positioned to build on recent progress toward this vision.

School Food Directly Affects Health and Learning

Today’s students likely will eat more than 4,000 school meals by the time they graduate from high school.

With each meal comes the opportunity to support schools’ core mission of education: studies consistently document a powerful connection between health and academic achievement. A vast body of research shows that improved nutrition in schools can lead to increased focus and attention, improved test scores and better classroom behavior. Very simply, healthy, well-nourished students are more likely to attend school and to be engaged and ready to learn.

Nutritious and appealing school meals can also guide students toward a lifelong relationship with healthy food.


School Food is a Social Justice Issue

The federal school food program began nearly 70 years ago out of concern that so many children were underweight and malnourished. The crisis facing us today is both the same and different: Now, many children are both overweight and malnourished.

This crisis is especially stark in low-income communities of color where students face higher rates of hunger, obesity and other health disparities. These communities are particularly affected by patterns of disinvestment and a lack of access to healthy foods; the resulting disparities are perpetuated by economic, health and social justice issues.

Ninety percent of CPS students come from low-income families and qualify for federally subsidized meals. Many of these students rely on schools for most of their meals. At the same time, more than 40 percent of Chicago students are overweight or obese.

In this context, it is especially critical that the meals students receive at school are healthy and help build habits that support students’ long-term health and academic potential.

School environments—including school meal programs—play an essential role in addressing health disparities and in taking on today’s crisis of childhood obesity and malnutrition.

Scope of the CPS School Meals Program

The Chicago Public Schools (CPS) school meal program is the third largest K-12 food service operation in the nation, annually serving 75 million meals to over 400,000 students through its 665 food campuses. Through its meal program, CPS offers breakfast, lunch, after school snacks, after school supper and Saturday meals to all students during the school year. CPS also serves breakfast and lunch to students during the summer months.

Over the last decade, CPS has taken significant steps to become a national leader in providing healthy school meals through the implementation of high nutrition standards, more scratch cooking, and other policies that regulate the sale and marketing of junk food to students.


Current Focus: Pathways to Excellence in School Nutrition

In 2013, HSC worked with CPS Nutrition Support Services to convene two School Food Advisory Groups to analyze the current status of school food in CPS and develop a plan for moving forward in key areas. The group identified 10 interconnected pathways to achieving its vision for healthy school food and provide a map for action.

1. Food + Health
Offer nutritious school meals that are appealing to students.

2. Procurement
Support the procurement of local and sustainably grown products; find new products that are healthier and less processed.

3. Teaching and Learning
Deepen students’ knowledge, skills and attitudes related to where food comes from; how it’s produced; and the connections between food, health and the environment.

4. Community Engagement
Involve CPS parents and the broader community in the efforts to improve school meals by providing engagement opportunities, including educational opportunities that will raise awareness, understanding and support for the school meals program.

5. Marketing and Communications
Successfully promote healthy meal programs and meaningful learning environments to parents and students.

6. Dining Experience
Create an inviting dining ambiance that encourages healthy interaction and healthy eating—a place that students enjoy; that makes the lunch period a time they look forward to; and that helps them feel safe and valued at mealtime.

7. Professional Development
Provide nutrition services staff with the professional training and support they need to offer meals featuring fresh and local food and to teach students about the relationship between food, health, and the environment.

8. Facilities
Have kitchen facilities that support the cooking of healthy and less processed meals.

9. Finances
Ensure that the school meal program is fiscally sound.

10. Waste Management
Reduce waste and help students understand the need to conserve natural resources.

For detail on the current status and plans, refer to the full Pathways to Excellence in School Nutrition report.


Important Progress

CPS has been a national leader in meeting high nutrition standards and delivering healthy and affordable meals to the district’s students. In the 2010-11 school year, CPS adopted new nutrition standards that included, among other changes:

  • More fruits and vegetables, with greater variety
  • More whole grains
  • Limited fries, nachos and other less-healthy items
  • Standards for breakfast cereal, and elimination of doughnuts and pastries at breakfast

These nutrition standards meet and in some cases exceed the Gold standard of the HealthierUS School Challenge. For a detailed look at the current nutrition standards, check out the CPS Pathways to Excellence in School Nutrition report.

These new standards are just one part of a multi-faceted approach to improving school food in Chicago Public Schools. Other recent progress includes:

  • Scratch Cooking. Thanks to recent facility upgrades, more schools have the equipment and training to cook fresh meals from scratch.
  • Farm to school. CPS has a robust farm to school program that provides students with tasty, nutritious produce while supporting local farmers and communities. CPS has purchased more than $4.2 million in produce from regional farmers over the past three school years.
  • Antibiotic-free chicken. CPS sources and regularly serves chicken raised without the use of antibiotics from a local farm.
  • Breakfast in the classroom. This initiative offers all elementary students a free breakfast when they arrive at school. An extensive body of research shows that breakfast consumption positively influences students’ cognitive function, focus, attention and emotional well-being.
  • “Copycat” breakfast cereals. CPS recently eliminated reformulated (aka “copycat”) breakfast cereals that meet nutrition standards but serve as vehicles to market unhealthy foods to children.
  • Healthy Snack and Beverage Policy. This recently adopted policy establishes nutrition standards for food available to students outside the school lunch program, including a la carte items sold in the cafeteria, vending machines, fundraisers and school stores.
  • Community Eligibility. Through the Community Eligibility Provision of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, CPS is able to provide free breakfast and lunch to all CPS students, removing the red tape and stigma associated with free and reduced price meals.

 Challenges and Constraints

To achieve the vision of providing tasty, nutritious and affordable school meals in a pleasant environment, CPS must navigate significant challenges. These include:

  • Limited funding. For CPS and schools across the country, the federal government provides around $2.94 for each lunch served to a student who qualifies for a free meal. After labor and other costs, schools have about a dollar to spend on food for each meal.
  • Limited kitchen facilities. Many Chicago schools have limited kitchen facilities that don’t allow for fresh scratch cooking. In the past five years, CPS has improved kitchen equipment, and today most CPS schools have ovens, stoves and steamers. However, 176 elementary schools still only have “warming kitchens” with equipment to heat food prepared elsewhere.
  • Scheduling, time and space limitations. It’s difficult to create an inviting and relaxed dining environment when faced with limited space and scheduling constraints that have some students lining up for lunch before 10 a.m. and/or only having 10-20 minutes to eat their meals.
  • Need for nutrition education. Without consistent nutrition education and an overall environment that supports healthy eating, many students are reluctant to accept healthier school food menus. It takes time for students’ palates to adapt to healthier options. Appealing presentation, effective nutrition education and strategic messaging within the cafeteria are key.
  • Waiting for the marketplace to catch up. In many cases, CPS and other school districts are ready and eager to purchase healthier foods (such as low-sugar breakfast cereals or less-processed lunch items) but these products simply aren’t available on the market yet in the quantities needed for school food service.

 National School Food Policy

School food in Chicago is shaped directly by federal school food policy and our nation’s food systems. Learn more about the issues, opportunities and challenges that shape school food on a national level in our School Food Policy section.

What We’re Doing

We have a long history of working with CPS to help shape the district’s school meal program. From our annual Cooking up Change healthy cooking contest to our advocacy efforts with local parents, we work for change that is meaningful, sustainable, and in the best interests of the students whose health and learning it directly affects. We also consider this experience as it relates to national school food policy.

Our approach to transforming school food in Chicago is based on an effective and time-tested model of working with key stakeholders to empower, advocate and build.


We Empower

We empower school stakeholders—teachers, administrators, students and parents, among others—to help make the healthy changes they’d like to see at their schools. For example:

  • Through our Cooking up Change program, we engage students in creating healthy and delicious school meals that meet the district’s standards, and in sharing their vision for school food with local and national decision-makers.
  • Through our Parents United for Healthy Schools program, we engage parents in developing the knowledge and skills to help bring about health-promoting changes at their children’s schools and reinforce healthy eating habits at home.
  • Through our Fit to Learn program, we connect teachers and principals with research about the connection between health and academic success, and with effective strategies for creating a whole-school culture of health.

We Advocate

We speak up for meaningful policies and practices to improve school meals and make healthy school food more accessible to all students. For example:

  • Parent leaders in our Parents United program spoke at Chicago Board of Education meetings in support of strong nutrition standards for school meals, which CPS has since adopted and put into practice.
  • Parent leaders gathered more than 6,000 petitions in support of Breakfast in the Classroom and presented these petitions to the Chicago Board of Education.
  • We galvanized partner organizations and community members to speak up in support of the 2012 update to the district’s Wellness Policy, which improved the school food environment with guidelines for school meals and for snacks and beverages available throughout the school.

We Build

We understand that change doesn’t happen on its own and that new policies often require new skills and resources. That’s why we work to build the capacity of schools to put health-promoting ideas into practice and to maintain positive changes for the long run. For example:

  • We worked with CPS to co-convene two school food advisory groups—one of parents and one of citywide stakeholders—to develop a comprehensive plan to achieve excellence in the school meal program based on the meaningful input from these two groups.
  • When CPS began piloting a Breakfast in the Classroom program, we worked with Parents United to engage parents and principals in piloting the program in their schools. Based on the success of this pilot, CPS expanded the program to grade schools across the city.
  • Through our Cooking up Change program, high school culinary students each year develop a set of recipes that both meet the district’s nutrition standards and appeal to their peers. Cooking up Change meals have been served across the entire district and some have been adopted as part of the regular CPS menu.

Your Role

Your voice and your actions matter in the movement to make schools healthier places for all children to learn and grow.


Join or Create a Wellness Team

You can create change at your school by joining or creating a wellness team. The CPS Wellness Policy requires that all schools have a wellness team and a wellness champion to spearhead school health and wellness initiatives. Wellness teams are typically comprised of parents, PE teachers, classroom teachers, school health professionals, students, school administrators and community health and wellness partners. If your school already has a wellness team, we encourage you to join!

If your school does not have a wellness team and you’d like to start one, contact your school principal. Here are some tips to get started:

Recruit team members. Begin by reaching out to the school principal, parents, teachers, the school nurse, facilities managers, school nutrition and food service leaders, and students. Also, consider community members who may bring a particular skill or interest to promoting school health.

Identify goals. When your team is in place, assess your school’s current needs. What are the most pressing challenges with student health and wellness? Outline your resources, what outcomes you want and what barriers you might face trying to get there. Think about the opportunities that currently exist and the strengths you can find in your community.

Develop a plan. Now that you’ve identified your goals, write them down. Identify the strategies and milestones you can use to measure progress. Also, outline the step-by-step activities that will take you to success. Give allies on your team responsibility for specific steps.

Take the first step. Remember that you don’t need to do everything at once. Often, a pilot program will be the best way to gain acceptance for your goals, work out any logistical problems and test different methods.

Rate your progress. Regularly review the measurable outcomes you identified in your plan. Identify which steps have been taken, which milestones have been accomplished and what else needs to be done. If you’ve received any feedback, consider that in your progress report. Also, review the lessons you’re learning along the way.

Give high-fives. Celebrate your progress! To keep your team engaged and motivated, it can’t be all work and no play. Take time to recognize the steps you take successfully and the people working hard to make it happen.


Stay Informed + Stay Connected

Informing yourself about the issues involved in school health and sharing this information with others is an important step in creating meaningful change. It’s about learning, sharing and sparking conversations that get people thinking. We encourage you to:


Make a Donation

As a nonprofit organization, we rely on support from people like you so we can continue to make schools healthier places where all children can learn and thrive. Your gift–large or small–will make a meaningful difference.

Make a Donation

School Food Resources

Access related resources below, or go to our main Resource Center to access resources across all of our program and policy areas.

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Ingredient Guide for Better School Food Purchasing

This guide is a resource for school food leaders and manufacturers alike who are committed to improving the overall quality, nutritional value, and safety of food provided to all students in every school. It highlights unwanted ingredients to eliminate, or those to watch out for, as new food products are developed and others are modified.

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Chicago Public Schools Healthy Snack and Beverage Policy

The purpose of this policy is to establish nutrition standards, requirements and recommendations for foods and beverages sold, provided or served to students at school that compete with food provided under the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), National School Breakfast Program (NSBP), Seamless Summer Option (SSO) and the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP). This policy seeks to create a school environment that supports student nutrition and healthy food choices by providing nutrition standards for food and beverages sold as competitive foods in vending machines, school stores, food vendors on school grounds, a la carte items, or as part of a school fundraiser, celebration or reward. The nutrition standards set forth in this policy are consistent with the USDA’s gold standard for competitive foods.

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Lista de Verificación: Lo que Puede Hacer Para Mejorar la Comida de su Escuela

Esta lista de verificación incluye elementos que CPS se ha comprometido a incluir así como ideas y estrategias para ayudar a crear un ambiente escolar que apoye al programa de alimentación escolar y los esfuerzos de los estudiantes por comer sanamente.

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Parent Checklist: What You Can Do to Improve Your School’s Food

This checklist includes items that CPS is committed to implementing as well as ideas and strategies to help create a school environment that is supportive of the school meal program and students’ efforts to eat healthy.

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Principal Toolkit: Getting the Most out of the CPS School Meal Program

Because principals and schools play such an important role in providing students with healthy food and educating them on healthy behaviors, we created this toolkit in partnership with Chicago Public Schools to give you a guide to making sure the school meal program is working as best as it can for your students.

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Frequently Asked Questions: Chicago Public Schools’ School Meal Program

This document will address frequently asked questions about the school meal program from parents just like you. Want to know how CPS is reducing processed food? Want to know how you can get involved? You've come to the right place.

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Preguntas Frecuentes: El Programa de Alimentación Escolar de las Escuelas Públicas de Chicago

Este documento abordará las preguntas más frecuentes sobre el programa de alimentación escolar de los padres como usted. ¿Quiere saber cómo CPS está reduciendo los alimentos procesados? ¿Quiere saber cómo puede participar? Usted ha venido al lugar correcto.

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Fueling Academic Performance: Strategies to Foster Healthy Eating Among Students

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Pathways to Excellence in School Nutrition

Improving the nutritional quality of school meal programs is complex and dependent on many factors. The School Food Advisory Groups identified these 10 interconnected pathways that relate to the strategic goals of CPS Nutrition Support Services, as well as action plans that provide a roadmap of how to continue efforts to provide healthy school food in a fiscally responsible way.

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Haitian Spice Chicken

Cooking up Change National 2015 recipe from Chicago's Marshall High School

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New Orleans Chicken and Polenta Napoleon

Cooking up Change Chicago 2012 recipe

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Cousins Collard Greens and Cabbage

Cooking up Change Chicago 2012 recipe

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Baked Sweet Potato Chips

Cooking up Change Chicago 2012 recipe

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Soup of Sunshine

Cooking up Change Chicago 2011 recipe from Richards Career Academy

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Dos Bean Rice Pilaf

Cooking up Change Chicago 2011 recipe from Julian High School

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Baked Cajun Mac n Cheese

Cooking up Change Chicago 2011 recipe from Clemente Community Academy

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Curry Chicken

Cooking up Change Chicago 2011 recipe from Clemente Community High School

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Fit to Learn Tip Sheet: Nutrition Education

Good nutrition can go far beyond the cafeteria—into the classroom! Nutrition education can be a separate curriculum or it can be woven into existing standards-based curricula.

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Fit to Learn Tip Sheet: Healthy Fundraising

Schools have many options for successfully raising money while keeping school wellness a priority—without relying on sales of unhealthy foods. Learn more about easy ways to hold healthy fundraisers in your school that send consistent, positive messages that wellness really matters.

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Chicago Public Schools Local School Wellness Policy

The purpose of this policy is to establish requirements for nutrition education, physical activity and the provision of healthy food choices at school and to ensure the Board’s expectations for student health and wellness are articulated and satisfied.

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DINEWell Toolkit

Availability of chips, candy and sugary drinks during the school day can affect concentration in the classroom and decrease student consumption of healthful foods such as fruits and vegetables. Calories from snacks and beverages purchased from vending machines, à la carte or school stores often replace nutrient-dense meals available to students in the school dining center and provided by parents and guardians. It is important that vending machines are appropriately placed within the school building and that food and drinks sold through these venues meet the Healthy Snack and Beverage Policy nutrition requirements.