SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - A new bill in Springfield would change the way Illinois school districts solicit food service contracts, allowing officials to negotiate for higher quality products amid complaints that many schools offer unhealthy food.
As state law stands, 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. Oftentimes that means districts can’t push for better options since vendors know the lowest bid wins.
Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth, D-Peoria, is sponsoring a bill that would carve out exemptions from those procurement requirements for schools, much like has been done for transportation services.
"To say that it must be the lowest-rate food, the cheapest-quality food, and that is the metric by which we are determining what our children are putting into their bodies every day, I just think that we can do better," Gordon-Booth said.
"We should be serving kids food that they will actually eat. Because what we’re seeing happening in school districts all over the state is that the food is so atrocious, 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 along with price. Illinois is only one of two states, along with New York, to require schools to take the lowest bid, Gordon-Booth said.
The bill, HB4813, unanimously passed out of the Illinois House’s Elementary and Secondary Education committee last week and could be called for a vote before the full House.
Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat, superintendent of Peoria Public Schools, supports the bill and said the change would weigh in the district’s decision-making with its food service contract up at the end of next school year. Peoria schools, where about 70% of students qualify for free and reduced lunch, have seen complaints about old, processed and unhealthy meals this school year.
"They truly rely on school meals, breakfast, lunch," Desmoulin-Kherat said. "Sometimes those are the only nutritious meals that they’ll have. So it’s very important that the meals are very nutritious, very fresh, very healthy to help sustain them and help them grow."
She said Sodexo, the district’s current vendor, has been responsive to concerns, but there’s undoubtedly room to grow. One of the options Desmoulin-Kherat’s team is considering as they seek input from families is whether to take food services in-house. But the ability to negotiate for fresher, higher-quality products could allow for a better contract, she said.
Marcus Alexander, superintendent of the Pembroke school district in the central Illinois town of Hopkins Park along the Indiana border, said he’d like to see several changes to school lunch programs because "insulating mediocrity of performance and service, that has to go.
"Food service has turned into big business that took away from the concept of the whole child," Alexander said.
Another change Alexander has pushed for in Springfield is for school districts to be allowed to buy their food from local sources, such as farms — currently prohibited by certain regulations.
His school district cooks lunches itself but orders products from a big-box type vendor. Hopkins Park is a farm community that has the bandwidth to serve public school students with fresher and healthier foods, though, and Alexander would like to tap into that possibility.
"Being able to provide children with high-quality, nutritious meals that they like and enjoy, that’s a top priority," he said.