An outdoor lunchroom for COVID-19 safety at Lincolnwood Elementary School. (Photo by Karen Larkin Young)

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The Better School Lunches Act, HB 4813, sponsored by Representative Jehan Gordon-Booth (D-Peoria), was approved by the House Elementary & Secondary Education Committee on Feb. 16. The bill would increase equity for low-income and minority students by expanding access to higher quality school meals while opening up more opportunities for farm-to-school initiatives across the state. The legislation aims to ensure that all students receive the nutrition needed to learn and thrive and put the power to determine cafeteria standards back into the hands of school districts and the local communities they serve.

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP), a federal program that reimburses school districts for serving free and reduced lunches to qualifying students, enables many school districts across the nation to serve students a meal. However school districts in Illinois are at a significant disadvantage compared with neighboring states because Illinois’ NSLP districts are required to consider only the lowest-price bid when contracting with food service providers.

This lowest-cost rule means Illinois’ school districts serving these vulnerable populations, and their PTAs and students, can’t choose vendors based on food quality, taste, cultural relevance, local sourcing or sustainability. Illinois and New York are the only two states in the nation with this requirement.

School districts that do not participate in the NSLP face no such restrictions, and therefore can purchase higher-quality food. This inequity largely impacts lower-income and minority communities across the state, and places children enrolled at schools participating in the NSLP at a significant disadvantage compared with their peers at wealthier schools.

“For many minority and low-income students, meals provided at school are often the only reliable source of nutrition needed to power learning, which makes this more than a procurement issue – it is a social justice issue,” said Gordon-Booth, who serves as Deputy Majority Leader and Speaker Pro Tempore of the Illinois House. “It’s not only unfair that state law prevents school districts in lower-income areas from offering food that is as nutritious as what children receive in wealthier areas, but also unjust. All children in our state deserve equal access to healthy meals, which often determine academic success.” 

School districts across the state have pointed to current bid requirement limitations as the main reason for low food quality and low consumption rates by students. Data suggests that students who do not eat a full lunch or breakfast are less prepared to succeed in the classroom, and adequate nutrition has been linked to students performing better in math, reading, attendance and test-taking. And this low quality leads to more food waste.

HB 4813 would remove this lowest-bid requirement and provide all Illinois school districts with the opportunity to grade potential food service vendors with a matrix to better evaluate contractors and provide for meaningful participation of students and staff in the evaluation process. This proposal would give districts flexibility to account for food quality and taste, along with other variables, including prioritization of local sourcing and training kitchen staff in scratch cooking techniques. It would also allow vendors to pay their kitchen workers a better wage. 

Traci Barkley of Sola Gratia Farm, one of many farmers actively supporting the bill, says “We know that in Urbana, over half of the students in our school districts qualify for free or reduced lunch. For many kids, they are getting their best, and sometimes their only meal, at school. When we think about where our farm can have the most impact – it’s by getting healthy food into schools.”

Last year Barkley worked with the Urbana School District, parents and area farmers to secure a Farm to School grant and increase farm-to-school initiatives, school gardens, nutrition education and local sourcing throughout the district. Even with the support of the school board and food service agency, the lowest-bid requirement was a significant barrier to getting local farm-fresh food into school lunches on a regular basis. 

“The food service agency contracted by Urbana is a local company,” Barkley said. “They want to work with us. But they have this ‘lowest-price bid’ requirement stacked against them. It hurts everyone along the supply chain – them, their employees, our farm and ultimately, the health and happiness of our kids.”

Many other infrastructure pieces would have to fall into place before local sourcing could take hold in school cafeterias, but removing the lowest-price bid requirement would eliminate the current and primary barrier for many schools. 

“This legislation opens the door for school districts and food service providers to make decisions based on what’s best for our students, not just the lowest bid,” said Todd Drafall, Assistant Superintendent for Business at Downers Grove School District 58 and a member of the Board of Directors of the Illinois Association of School Business Officials. “Our goal should be to provide the best quality of service and best quality of food at a competitive price.”

The legislation is supported by a broad coalition of stakeholders, including the Chicago Food Policy Action Council, Chicago Public Schools, ED-RED, Greater Chicago Food Depository, Illinois Environmental Council, Illinois Heart Association, Illinois Stewardship Alliance, Illinois Association of School Boards, Illinois Principals Association, Indian Prairie School District 240, Large Unit District Association, Woodridge School District, West Aurora School District, Joliet School District 86, LEND and the FIP Action Fund.

For more information about how to support this effort, visit https://bit.ly/betterschoolunches.

By Tim Sonder, co-leader of Edible Evanston. Contributing to this essay was Kathleen Mueller, Senior Policy Organizer at the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, who received additional input supplied by the Illinois Association of School Business Officials.

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