Illinois schools wouldn’t have to serve the cheapest food possible under new bill – NBC Chicago
A new bill in Springfield would change how Illinois school districts solicit catering contracts, allowing officials to negotiate higher-quality products amid complaints that many schools offer unhealthy food.
By state law, Illinois school districts participating in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National School Lunch Program are required to accept the lowest bid for their food contracts. Often this means districts cannot push for better options since suppliers know the lowest bid wins.
Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, D-Peoria, is sponsoring a bill that would grant exemptions to these procurement requirements for schools, much like it has been done for transportation services.
“To say it has to be the cheapest food, the cheapest food, and that’s the metric by which we determine what our kids put into their bodies every day, I just think we can do better,” said Gordon-Booth.
“We should be feeding kids foods that they will actually eat. Because what we’re seeing happening in school districts across the state is that the food is so atrocious that the kids aren’t even eating it.
School districts will still be allowed to accept the lowest bid, but the bill would also allow officials to consider quality in addition to price. Illinois is just one of two states, along with New York, to require schools to accept the lowest offer, Gordon-Booth said.
The bill, HB4813, was passed unanimously by the Illinois House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee last week and could go to a vote in front of the full House.
Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat, superintendent of Peoria Public Schools, supports the bill and said the change would weigh in on the district’s decision-making with its food service contract at the end of next school year. Schools in Peoria, where about 70% of students are entitled to free and reduced-price lunch, have seen complaints about old, processed and unhealthy meals this school year.
“They really rely on school meals, breakfast, lunch,” Desmoulin-Kherat said. “Sometimes these are the only nutritious meals they will have. It is therefore very important that the meals are very nutritious, very fresh, very healthy to support them and help them grow.
She said Sodexo, the district’s current supplier, has addressed concerns, but there is undoubtedly room to grow. One of the options the Desmoulin-Kherat team considered when seeking input from families is whether to take catering services in-house. But the ability to negotiate fresher, higher-quality produce could lead to a better deal, she said.
Marcus Alexander, superintendent of the Pembroke School District in the central Illinois town of Hopkins Park along the Indiana border, said he would like to see several changes to school lunch programs because that “the isolation of poor performance and service must go.
“Foodservice has become a big business that has moved away from the concept of the whole child,” Alexander said.
Another change Alexander demanded from Springfield is that school districts be allowed to buy their food from local sources, such as farms — currently prohibited by some regulations.
Her school district cooks the lunches herself, but orders produce from a big-box type vendor. Hopkins Park is a farming community that has the bandwidth to serve public school students with fresher, healthier food, and Alexander would like to tap into that opportunity.
“Being able to provide children with high quality, nutritious meals that they love and enjoy is a top priority,” he said.