Students at Niles West and Niles North high schools will be seeing some different options in the lunch line when they return to classes in August.
The Niles Township High School District 219 school board approved a contract with Organic Life, a new food service vendor, and opted to participate in the National School Lunch Program.
“Several factors led to this recommendation,” said Paul O’Malley, the assistant superintendent for business services, at the May 31 board meeting. “We believe we will have much healthier food, and that is something we heard over and over from our students. They want something that not only looks good but tastes good.”
Aramark had provided the food served at District 219 schools for the past nine years with a plan that did not participate in the federal school lunch program. Students who qualified still received free and reduced-price meals, but the cost was subsidized by the fees paid by other students.
District will get reimbursed
The district expects to receive more than $654,000 in reimbursements for the lunch program from the federal government next year, according to the memo O’Malley wrote for the school board. Money that does not pay for food must be used to offset the cost of capital improvements, personnel and other expenses in the food service program. Some of the money will go toward the cost of hiring one or two staff members whose job it will be to make sure that the district remains in compliance with all of the national school lunch program’s requirements.
The change makes sense because the proportion of District 219 students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals, based on their household income, has risen from about 5 percent five years ago to more than 30 percent last year, according to O’Malley.
In February, the Disrict 219 board asked administrators to ask for proposals for both participating in the national school lunch program and remaining outside of the program.
New vendor aces taste test
Aramark and Organic Life were the only two vendors who met all the requirements for the national school lunch program bid, including offering a taste test on May 2. The students, staff and board members who participated rated Organic Life’s food as tastier than Aramark’s, and Organic Life’s bid said that it could produce meals at a lower cost than Aramark’s bid.
Organic Life also said that it could work with dietary requirements of District 219’s religiously and ethnically diverse student body. One student taste tester followed the halal dietary laws of Islam and was able to eat well at the taste test, said school board vice president Sheri Doniger.
“This is not something we go into lightly,” Doniger said. “The students were integral to working with us on this.”
Increases per-pupil costs
One down side of going with the National Student Lunch Program is that it will increase District 219’s per-pupil operating costs, since the federal money for the program flows into district coffers before being paid out for the program, said school board president Robert Silverman. Under the old model, money from meals went directly to the vendor.
School officials would like to see the operating expense per pupil (OEPP) drop – or at least not increase – because, as of 2009, the district had the second-highest operating expense per pupil among high school districts in Illinois, and some taxpayers have asked whether the district could provide education with a smaller price tag.
“We’ll have to look elsewhere to reduce our OEPP costs,” Silverman said.