Lawmakers are working to remove a barrier to quality school lunches
An effort to improve the quality of school meals for lower-income and minority students is making its way through the Illinois General Assembly.
The Better School Lunches Act has moved on to the Senate after passing unanimously through the state House last week. Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, D-Peoria, reintroduced the legislation after photos of some less-than-appetizing meals served at Peoria Public Schools posted on social media sparked outrage and increased scrutiny.
“The way that the stories were depicted, it certainly sounded as though this was an exclusive Peoria Public Schools issue – and I'm here to tell you that that is not the case,” said Gordon-Booth, adding she initially started working on the bill in 2019 after noticing her own daughter was not eating the meals she received at her school.
“Frankly, I just felt like we as parents, of public school children deserve better (and) as taxpayers, we deserve better. … I saw something that I thought was not cool, wasn't right, and instead of just being mad about it or posting on social media about it, I decided to do what most legislators in my case would do: I started investigating, and I wanted to know why the lunches were so bad.”
What Gordon-Booth found was an issue with the Illinois Procurement Code that requires school districts participating in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) to accept the lowest bid when selecting their food service contractors.
She says that requirement doesn’t give the school districts any leeway in gauging the quality and nutritional value offered, instead forcing them to accept service that may be sub-standard.
“Vendors, they're forced to bid the lowest possible amount in order to try to secure the contract,” she said. “What we see happening is they cut their service or cut the quality of the products, and the school district suffers because they get bad food service. Then what you find at the end of the lunch periods are garbage cans full of the food that the kids would not eat.”
Illinois is one of only two states that forces districts enrolled in the NSLP to take the low bid, with the other being New York. The Better School Lunches Act removes that requirement from the Illinois code. PPS Superintendent Dr. Sharon Kherat says District 150 will benefit greatly if the bill becomes law, particularly from an equity standpoint.
“We've seen locally and statewide that there is a disparity between school districts in the quality of meal served when compared to wealthier school districts. So we feel that this is a disparity gap that can be closed through this new legislation,” said Kherat.
Gordon-Booth said since the Better School Lunches Act only applies to districts in the NSLP, it mainly impacts low-income and minority students. So removing the low-bid requirement addresses an inequity in the system
“We're talking about rural kids, urban kids and suburban kids across the state are subjected to subpar food simply because of the state of Illinois Procurement Code, and I think we can do better,” she said. “Let's remember the reason why the National School Lunch Program exists is because we know that there are children they get their only quality meals each day while they're at school. But at the same time this policy forces children into what we know is an inferior product.”
Kherat said getting better school meals is something that kids bring to her attention regularly, particularly during her quarterly roundtable meeting students.
“I always ask, because they're sort of my eyes and ears because they're closer to the classrooms and closer to the schools. When I ask them, ‘what are the opportunities for improvement for the school district?’ year in and year out, there is a resounding answer every time from the majority of students around the quality of school lunches,” said Kherat.
The photos of the unappetizing food at Von Steuben Middle School were taken by Anthony Kramer and shared on his Facebook page. Kramer says he lost his job with the district after posting the pictures.
Gordon-Booth says not only does requiring school districts to take the low bid for food service a detriment to quality, it’s also inconsistent with how they handle other business.
“We do not hold school districts to the lowest bidder requirement when it comes to that school district choosing a lawyer. We don't require the lowest bidder requirement when it comes to that school district choosing, say a contractor to maybe build a wing onto the school. But for some reason, we require it for food. That makes no sense whatsoever,” she said, adding that districts and food providers both need the ability to discuss their pricing options so that they can maximize cost effectiveness.
“We negotiate on everything else but we can't negotiate food. Why are we as a state in the business of telling a school district of duly elected (board) members they cannot negotiate the food? We know why the breakfast lunch program was created; it was created because we know that poverty is such a significant issue throughout the country, and we know that in order for kids to learn, they need to not be hungry.”
Kherat said PPS still has a strong relationship with its current food provider, Sodexo. She said the company responds well when issues are raised and they have improved their menu significantly in recent years.
“We have close to 13,000 students in our district and they serve thousands of meals a day, and I do believe the overwhelming majority of those are quality meals,” said Kherat. “All it takes is one thing going wrong and then it gets on social media and ‘boom,’ it just snowballs from there.”
Gordon-Booth says she’s hopeful the bill will move through the Senate quickly and arrive on Gov. JB Pritzker's desk for his signature sometime this summer.