Students in Niles Township High School District 219 in Skokie, Ill., were getting tired of paying more money for healthy foods at lunch and craved nutritious meals with a variety of flavors and choices at a fair price. Students were actually paying more for salad and carrot sticks than unhealthy foods such as pizza or fries. In early 2010, they asked the school board to make changes in the food. Because of the growing rates of diabetes and obesity in school-aged children around the nation, board members had to act.
Last August, about 18 months after the district’s board started considering overhauling its school lunch program, the district implemented a five-year sustainable food program with a Chicago-based company called Organic Life, despite the fact that Congress knocked down measures by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to improve nutrition in school lunches a few months later.
The process for the new program started in early 2010 after initiative from students, when the district created a wellness committee comprised of teachers and staff that met with students and conducted surveys to find out how students felt about lunch choices. Students participated in taste tests and the district eventually chose Organic Life with the help of student input.
“Including students in the process of creating the environment in which they live and learn every day is an essential component to creating an environment that is respected and embraced by those who use it and is part of our long-term goal to teach leadership,” says Superintendent Nanciann Gatta.
Local and Organic
At the start of the school year, under the supervision of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), Organic Life started serving local and organic food that makes up seven complete lunches every day at three high schools serving 4,800 students. The district will save $600,000 per year with NSLP funds and Organic Life.
Lunches include a main course—such as pasta primavera tossed in lightly roasted garlic and herb oil or free-range chicken—organic steamed vegetables and fresh organic fruit. Green plate specials, which are the cheapest and healthiest meals, are $2.25 each or free for students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, which is about 31 percent of the student population.
Sheri Doniger, vice president of the school board, played an essential role in seeing this initiative through. “We look at lunch as an extension of the classroom and as another period,” she says. “For a lot of our kids, this is the only healthy meal they get all day and the only way to show them what a healthy meal looks like.”
Paul O’Malley, assistant superintendent of business services, says this five-year plan allows for gradual change. “We didn’t want the provider to change the food in the first year,” he explains. “We have to explore which foods are helpful, and we have a five-year progression to change food practices and increase organic food purchasing.”
Based on feedback from students, the community and school board, District 219 came up with 67 different strategies to implement over five years. These practices include buying local and organic fruits, vegetables and meats, purchasing kitchen clothing made from organic cotton, and hanging signs about nutrition around the cafeteria.
The district plans to increase sustainable practices each year and to reduce costs while doing so. Organic and local food purchases started at 20 percent of the total cost of foods purchased and will increase by 5 percent each year. Employees are measuring the amount of water, gas and electricity used not just to reduce costs, but to build consciousness. They also started measuring food waste in the kitchen in November and are looking for a way to begin composting waste.