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Food for thought

by Steve Stein |
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It’s ‘yes’ to tangerine chicken, ‘no’ to sushi, and ‘no cash, please’ at central Illinois school cafeterias

It’s lunchtime at your neighborhood school. Kids eat, talk about whatever is going on in their lives, and get ready for their next class.

For the in-house food service directors and the companies that are contracted to handle food service for schools, meal time isn’t so simple.

If a school or school district receives federal funding for its food service — most do — it must make sure it’s serving healthy meals to students that meet ever-changing federal nutrition standards.

Crystal Lohnes is director of food services for Morton CUSD 709 School District
Crystal Lohnes is director of food services for Morton CUSD 709 School District (Photo by Ron Johnson)

‘A school food service program should not be a profit-maker’ — Morton Superintendent Craig Smock

“It can be difficult getting products that meet those standards,” said Laura McCue-Newport, food services director at Washington Community High School. “We’re lucky in our area because we have good suppliers. Schools in food deserts aren’t so lucky.”

So, what’s a typical mealtime like at a school these days?

Let’s go to Washington, which has had its own food service “forever,” McCue-Newport said.

First, cash is no longer king. At Washington, cafeteria accounts linked to a student ID are used to purchase food. Many families put money into an account online. The cost for a full breakfast or lunch ranges from $1.75 to $3.20. Students who qualify for a reduced-price meal pay no more than 40 cents.

So what constitutes a full breakfast or lunch? Selections from at least three of five food groups: fruit or juice, milk, meat or protein, vegetables and bread, with fruit or juice and vegetables mandatory.

Washington’s cafeteria averages about 800–1,200 lunches daily in the school of about 1,400 students, depending upon what’s on the menu, said McCue-Newport. Tangerine chicken is students’ favorite dish. Country-fried steak and pizza are other student favorites, as is “anything with mashed potatoes,” McCue-Newport said.

The Morton School District, which has six schools with a combined enrollment of nearly 3,300, switched from contracted to in-house food service this school year.

It’s the first time in more than 30 years that Morton is running its own food show.

The Morton School Board unanimously approved the change in April after expressing initial concerns about the district taking on such a large responsibility. Crystal Lohnes is now the district’s director of food service, following previous stints at Aramark Student Nutrition and OSF HealthCare in Bloomington.

Lisa Kowalski, the Morton district’s chief financial officer who recommended the change, said the most surprising finding of her research was that a large majority of Illinois school districts — approximately 73% — have their own food service.

“A number of districts with a contracted food service were looking to change for the same reasons as we were,” she said.

Among the primary reasons Morton made the switch to an in-house food service were substantial increases in what it was being charged for meals — from $3.30 for the 2021–22 school year to $4.13 for the 2022–23 school year to a proposed $4.34 for the coming year — and the ability to have food service workers be district employees.

“A school food service program should not be a profit-maker,” said Morton Superintendent Craig Smock, who said lunch prices in the district will remain the same this school year. Those prices are $3 for grades 9–12, $2.90 for grades 7–8, and $2.80 for grades 1–6. Milk is 80 cents.

“At the end of this school year, we’ll see if our revenue is adequate to run our food service program on, essentially, a zero net basis,” Smock said. “With the threat of food prices continuing to increase because of inflation, we considered increasing meal prices, but we also factored in the elimination of a profit margin that a private contractor has to consider. We just want to break even.”

Meanwhile, the cafeteria conundrum turned into a teachable moment last school year, with fifth-graders at Morton’s Lincoln Elementary School coming up with ideas on how to improve food service as part of a class project. Lohnes said she’s incorporating some of the students’ ideas. In short, students want more fresh fruits, spaghetti and BBQ rib sandwiches. A suggestion to put sushi on the menu got a gentle thumb’s down.

Lohnes said she’s applying for a Local Food for Schools grant from the United States Department of Agriculture. Set up to help schools deal with supply chain issues caused by the pandemic, the grant can be used to purchase produce grown within 400 miles of a school.

Schools in central Illinois that have in-house food service include those in East Peoria, Limestone, Metamora, Eureka, Dunlap, and Illini Bluffs (Glasford area). Peoria Public Schools and schools in Pekin, Canton and Illinois Valley Central (Chillicothe) have contracted food service.

Steve Stein

Steve Stein

is a longtime Peoria area print journalist

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