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Sachpreet Chandhoke/MEDILL

In fall 2009, the Tilden Career Community Academy High School won the Cooking Up Change competition for inventing a nutritious, tasty meal for $1, the budget available for each Chicago Public Schools lunch.

In public schools, $1 meals all day, every day

by Sachpreet Chandhoke
Feb 25, 2010

LUNCH_meal eligibility

Sachpreet Chandhoke/MEDILL (Source: CPS)

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Sachpreet Chandhoke/MEDILL (Source: CPS)

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Sachpreet Chandhoke/MEDILL (Source: IOM)

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Sachpreet Chandhoke/MEDILL (Source:  CPS)

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Related Links

Institute of Medicine report on school mealsHealthy Schools Campaign Web siteCPS bid document for food service companiesVisit the On a Dollar a Day blogJamie Oliver's TED award acceptance speech

Did you know?

Fewer than one-third of CPS schools have a dishwasher, or kitchen facility, meaning that they are served what is called “pre-plated” foods.  This is not part of the food service catering contract, and is currently served by Preferred Meals Systems.  These meals come in paper trays, and are reheated before being served.

In schools with kitchens, meals are often served on reusable ware.

Imagine having a $1 per meal budget. Now think about how you decide what to eat on a daily basis – breakfast, lunch, snacks and dinner.    

You probably don’t just count calories, nor do you just eat separate regimented portions of certain foods.  Within the means available, you eat for flavor, energy and nourishment.  And nothing rivals a home-cooked meal. 

For school lunch program providers, and unfortunately for students, taste and flavor are not mandated.  But nutrition requirements and a specified number of servings of fruits, vegetables, proteins and grains must be met – all within a $1 budget. 

The result is a national school lunch and breakfast program dominated by processed foods, where nachos, pizza and chicken nuggets count as protein, and grains and French fries count as vegetables, served with an apple or an orange, carrot sticks and milk on the side for a balanced meal. 

The federal government provides schools with up to $2.85 per meal, but after paying for labor, facilities and management there is often just $1 left to spend on the food itself. 

Every year, roughly 55 million $1 meals and snacks are served in the Chicago Public Schools system.  More than three-quarters of these meals are served for free because students’ family incomes are within 30 percent of the national poverty level.  

“This is really a social justice issue,” said chef Ann Cooper, self-proclaimed renegade lunch lady, and director of nutrition services in the Boulder Valley district in Colorado. “If we’re going to close the achievement gap, we have to close the nutrition gap.”  

School lunches are considered important tools to combat childhood obesity, a growing epidemic, and improve academic performance, critical in preparing the next generation of the workforce.    

These meals are the result of administrators and food service companies following the rules established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the program, and limited budgets.

“We need more money and we need better guidelines,” Cooper said.  “I think we need $1 more … if we really want to fix school lunch.”   

Let the bidding begin  

Chicago Public Schools issued a bid for its meal program services on Feb. 16, giving food service purveyors four weeks to assemble menus and a business proposal.    

“We expect companies to really respond to our goals,” said Louise Esaian, logistics officer for the Chicago Public Schools, often described as the driving force behind the nutritional standards here.  

CPS has set a high bar by requiring vendors to achieve aggressive nutritional standards that meet, and in some cases, exceed “gold standard” national guidelines recommended for school meals.  Sugary cereals have been banned, nachos have been limited to one to two times per week, whole grains are required, and vegetable and fruit serving sizes have increased.  

Chicago is not alone in its attempt to improve school meals. A congressional briefing was held Tuesday morning to review the Child Nutrition Act. 

On Tuesday afternoon, following the hearing, students from Tilden Career Community Academy in Englewood served a winning $1 chicken jambalaya in the House of Representatives cafeteria and met with Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) to share what they learned in building a healthy, low-budget meal and what it means to them to have nutritious food options in schools.    

Adding momentum to the push for change, Michelle Obama has unveiled her initiative to combat childhood obesity, promising to improve school meals.    

In late 2009, the Institute of Medicine released a new set of recommended guidelines to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  The institute supports a menu planning system based on foods – instead of nutrients – to promote consumption of whole grains, vegetables and fruits and to reduce sodium.  By mandating foods instead of nutrients, the institute hopes to promote natural foods and ingredients, as opposed to processed foods fortified with nutrients and minerals.    

And on March 26, British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver will appear in “Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution” in a series on ABC showcasing his efforts in Huntington, West Virginia to improve food choices in homes and schools.     

With so much activity by different groups, the question is which force, or combination of forces, will prevail.    

The biggest obstacle, of course, is budgets. 

In Chicago, there is a possibility that a looming billion-dollar budget deficit for 2011, announced Thursday by Chicago Public Schools leader Ron Huberman, will prohibit increased funding for a school meal program that already runs an estimated 75-cent per meal deficit.  But, budget negotiations are ongoing, so there is still some hope. 

According to Bob Bloomer, regional vice president for Chartwells-Thompson and incumbent provider of CPS meals, the new guidelines will cost vendors like his company 9 percent more to create breakfasts, and 25 percent more for lunches.    

Attempting to ease funding constraints, President Obama has asked Congress, in its review of the Child Nutrition Act, to increase funding by $1 billion, split between school food and the women, infants and children program.   

Still, if the funding is split evenly, this will equate to a roughly 9 cent increase per lunch across the country, according to Colorado lunch lady Cooper, punctuating the need for creativity and innovation in feeding school children. 

A dash of creativity  

With a limited budget, but a desire to provide healthier options, experts say there are two possible paths forward.    

Either school food suppliers develop healthy, nutritious alternatives at competitive prices as compared to current conventional offerings – or the school meal system shifts from preparing processed foods to actually cooking meals in school kitchens.  But that might have a hidden capital cost that is not in school budgets.  

Food suppliers are not likely to ratchet up manufacturing or production for healthier products unless there is a market for them created by new government guidelines or nationwide demand from schools.   

So, in the meantime, administrators and food service companies need to make some tough decisions.  

“You can eat healthy on limited funds, but you have to make some serious judgment calls,” said Christopher Greenslate, co-author of “On a Dollar a Day,” which chronicles a couple’s adventures eating on meager budgets.    

“If you’re asking me to pick between a salad bar and a pizza and I’m 8 years old, that’s a joke,” Greenslate continued. “Why don’t we just serve healthy meals?”  

Over the last few years, schools have adjusted their offerings by using “healthier” ingredients, so for example, low-fat cheese on pizzas, or a multi-grain crust.    

“Less bad is not good,” Greenslate said. “We just have to say no to the foods that we love.”   

Meal providers have also introduced healthier side dishes to accompany breakfasts and lunches.  

But DeShunn Bray, local school council president at Jackie Robinson Elementary and parent of an 8-year-old daughter, said the current “healthy” meal options don’t always make sense.  

“You don’t put popcorn shrimp salad with squash and avocado – that won’t even sit well in an adult system!” Bray said.    

Chef Dan Leszczewicz from Tilden says the challenge facing food providers isn’t about providing healthier options as separate meal items, but integrating them into one nutritious, tasty meal so that children actually eat what they take.   

Chicago schools have recognized the need to be creative and update their menus. 

Vending machines do not include soda pop; whole grains are more commonplace; vegan dessert bars are available, and some schools have been outfitted with salad bars and deli stations.   And, in the 2009-2010 school year local produce purchases jumped more than 10-fold from $150,000 to $1.8 million. 

But reformists say more can be done and that food experts need to be front and center in menu planning to make the most of the 100 pennies available. 

“The system is highly run by accountants,” said Jamie Oliver, advocate of school meal reform, in his TED award acceptance speech in February 2010.  “There’s not enough, or any, food-knowledgeable people in the business.  It’s a problem.  If you’re not a food expert and you’ve got tight budgets, and it’s getting tighter, then you can’t be creative.  You can’t duck and dive and write different things.  If you’re an accountant, and a box-ticker, the only thing you can do in these circumstances is buy cheaper.” 

The bids for the Chicago schools meal program are due on March 16.  The evaluation team will present a recommendation to the board on April 28.