Ellen Pimentel plans to continue her push for healthier school lunches this year.
Last school year, approximately 600 parents joined Pimentel in asking for healthier options in the lunch program.
“I think it’s hypocritical of schools to preach health…and then you go down to the cafeteria and it’s like McDonald’s,” Pimentel, a parent of three at Beye Elementary School, said at the time.
In December, Gary Lonquist, District 97 assistant superintendent for finance and operations, wrote in a memo to the school board: “I believe the proactive stance taken by the district has caused Preferred Meals [the district’s lunch vendor] to look beyond simple menu compliance with current Federal regulations to reflect the changes in public perceptions of child nutrition.”
The district subsequently signed a one-year contract with the vendor, renewable for four additional years.
But in June, Lonquist warned that new menus in the fall wouldn’t be much different.
“There’s not a great deal you can do,” he said then, adding that the district had called for one healthier entree a week in its bid, to which Preferred was one of two to respond and the only one to place a formal bid.
“I didn’t think there was much of a change,” Pimentel said recently after looking at the August/September elementary school lunch menu online.
The menu still consists mostly of pizza, breaded chicken and cheeseburgers, with sweets like cookies and “Honey Belly Bears” sprinkled throughout.
New at the middle schools is a choice in entrees. But again, it is hard to discern which out of a week’s lineup might be considered a healthy alternative: waffles & sausage, beef sausage pizza, jumbo beef hot dog, chicken fillet, sloppy joe for the week of Sept. 12-16. The second-choice entree that week is chicken nuggets.
Lonquist said the second-choice entrees were not added for health reasons: “We think it might be a good marketing thing and encourage more participation.”
There is nothing to prevent a student from eating chicken nuggets every day that week, he said. Other second-choice selections include cheeseburgers, hot dogs, and cheese pizza.
Lonquist points out that all entrees follow federal guidelines for school lunch nutrition, and what’s offered is a one-size-fits-all menu.
“This is not a restaurant,” Lonquist said. “It’s never going to be.”
Pimentel said her children participated in a summer camp at the River Forest Community Center, where provided lunches included two choices of vegetables daily and dishes such as rice pilaf.
“I’d love to see rice pilaf on [Dist. 97’s] menu, or two different vegetables every day. That would be great,” Pimentel said.
She was encouraged that the contract with Preferred Foods is for just one year. She will continue to push for healthier school lunches this year, and hopes the district will re-bid its lunch contract.