The Next Chapter of School Food In Chicago

  • June 26, 2013
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The Chicago Public Schools Board of Education passed a new food service management contract that continues to make improvements to Chicago’s school meals.

by Rochelle Davis

Today, the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) Board of Education passed a new food service management contract that continues to make improvements to Chicago’s school meals. Many of the provisions in the contract that focus on student health stemmed from an extensive community engagement process that Healthy Schools Campaign co-led. If implemented fully, these changes will significantly improve the school meal program. We are pleased that CPS is committed to making continued changes to support healthy school food.

For the last nine months, two key advisory groups, one of citywide stakeholders and one of parents from across the district, met to provide input to CPS’ school food program. Their work focused on strategies for improving the healthfulness and sustainability of school food, encouraging students to enjoy the healthier menus, connecting the classroom and the cafeteria and supporting food service staff. These suggestions were organized into 10 pathways around excellence in school meal programs. Based on this feedback, we compiled a report highlighting the resulting action plans, which can be downloaded here.

A number of the recommendations from these advisory groups were incorporated into the CPS request for proposal for food service management services and are now part of the new contract. Three major recommendations from the advisory groups that are incorporated into the contract are:

  • Upholding CPS’ commitment to high nutrition standards. Currently, CPS’ nutritional standards meet, and in some cases exceed, the Gold standard of the HealthierUS School Challenge. These standards call for more whole grains, increased servings and greater variety of fruits and vegetables, cereals with lower sugar and more whole grains, no donuts or pastries at breakfast and limited availability of less healthy items.
  • Expanding the local and sustainable purchasing program to all CPS schools. CPS has purchased more than $4.2 million in produce from regional farmers over the past three school years, and also made a major purchase of chicken raised without antibiotics for the school meal program from farmers in nearby Indiana. However, these two programs only impact two-thirds of CPS schools. Now, under the new contract, all students will receive this fresh, healthy food. 
  • Transitioning the model for schools that receive pre-plated, vended meals to a traditional, bulk service meal program. Currently, students in 176 schools receive pre-plated frozen meals. Under this new contract, most of these schools will be transitioned to a more traditional cafeteria program, which will make healthy food more appealing to students.

This contract, which is the largest food service management contract in North America, was awarded to Aramark. According to the CPS press office, even with the above improvements, the contract will save CPS more than $12 million per year. There are a number of elements of Aramark’s program that we are particularly excited about. One of these is Aramark’s plans to partner with FarmLogix, a company that specializes in local supply chain development. This partnership has the potential to increase CPS’ access to locally grown produce, allow for tracking of where foods are locally procured and even allow students at individual schools to learn about the farmer who grew their food.

In addition, Aramark will provide students with organic romaine lettuce for main course salads.  Finally, understanding the importance of food presentation and the dining experience,  Aramark will work to improve the food presentation and the cafeteria setting with comprehensive training for staff and a plan for marketing healthful foods to students.

We applaud CPS for soliciting input from parents and other stakeholders and are excited about the plan that emerged from this process.