Healthful school lunch options abound, students eating it up
Niles North High School sophomore Sargon Gabriel enjoys his lunch in the cafeteria Aug. 27. | Curtis Lehmkuhl~Sun-Times Media
SKOKIE — School-cafeteria dining isn’t what it used to be at Niles North and Niles West high schools.
Images of cold meatloaf, soggy mashed potatoes and funny-looking vegetables that used to be associated with cafeteria cuisine are now a thing of the past at Niles Township District 219 high schools, where an organic-focused and environmentally sustainable new lunch program has students excited about school lunch.
At the urging of students who demanded more-healthful food at a cheaper costs, last year Niles North and Niles West left the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and entered into a private contract with OrganicLife, a food-service company that provides healthful, cooked-from-scratch meal options to Illinois schools.
Before District 219 began the healthy-lunch program, there wasn’t much variety available to school cafeteria diners.
“We had frozen, pre-made burger patties, nachos where the chips were just dumped out of the bag, everyday hot dogs, and a special that would change from day to day,” said Jim Szczepaniak, community-relations director for Niles Township High Schools District 219. “Today we have eight different food stations where most of the food is prepared fresh on site — pizzas and soups are made from scratch; the chicken at the salad bar is organic and grilled beautifully; and the steaks are as lean as can be.”
As part of an overall sustainability strategy developed by District 219, the food offered at both schools is now mostly cooked from scratch. The food is also prepared with more fresh and natural, locally sourced ingredients, including grass-fed beef, organic chicken and 100-percent juices.
The switch to OrganicLife is part of a comprehensive plan for the two high schools to become more environmentally sustainable over a five-year period.
As part of the agreement with OrganicLife, District 219 has been working with Beyond Green, a food-service consulting firm that specializes in environmental sustainability. Beyond Green helped District 219 outline 60 goals that OrganicLife must reach within the next five years.
One of those goals is for 75 percent of the food cooked at the two high schools to be made from scratch within the next five years. This year 50 percent is cooked from scratch, reported Elizabeth Porporato, vice president of operations for Beyond Green.
“The strategy is about offering improved quality of the food by using locally sourced and organic ingredients as much as possible,” Porporato said.
Each of the more than 100 a la carte cafeteria menu items offered by OrganicLife costs less than $5, and includes favorites like pizza, burgers and chicken sandwiches — only each is prepared healthier and fresher than in years past.
In addition to the daily lunch special — lemon tilapia served with rice and green beans, for example on the first day of school last week — students also have the option to choose from one of four reduced-rate “Green Plate Specials” for $2.75, or order an entrée platter from one of eight food stations for $4.95.
Besides offering more-healthful menus, officials hope to get more students involved in the schools’ sustainable initiatives in an effort to move toward an overall “greener” lifestyle.
The sustainability strategy aims to reduce landfill waste by composting leftover food and using biodegradable or reusable plates and flatware while reducing energy use in school kitchens, Szczepaniak said.
“Since we’re not throwing away everything in the garbage anymore, one challenge for us is helping the students and faculty understand how to sort leftovers and eating utensils so they go into the right place,” Szczepaniak said.
The driving factor behind the switch to the sustainable lunch plan was a large group of students who began pushing for healthier food at a cheaper cost two years ago.
The school board began looking at alternative food options after more than 1,300 students signed a petition asking district officials to provide a better menu.
Two years later the District 219 community has become increasingly involved in making the schools more environmentally sustainable.
Taking locally grown to a whole new level, Niles West math teacher Vanessa Brechling recently started a garden club in the school’s courtyard with the goal of growing vegetables right at the school and using them in OrganicLife’s recipes.
So far the healthier menus have been a hit with both students and faculty. At the end of the 2011-12 school year, Beyond Green surveyed students at both schools, and 90 percent of students agreed the food was flavorful and tasty, while 80 percent said they preferred the new food over the previous year’s old menu, Porporato reported.
“The student response has been phenomenal,” Szczepaniak said. “Also a lot of the faculty who’ve said they never ate lunch at school in the past are now eating here every day.”
To view the new District 219 lunch menus, go to http://www.niles-hs.k12.il.us/food-service.