Micheline Piekarski was gearing up Monday for another year of serving lunches to students at Oak Park and River Forest High School. Piekarski, OPRF’s director of Food and Nutrition Services, will have an extra helping on her plate this year.
OPRF will begin serving lunches to kids at Beye and Irving elementary schools in Oak Park next Tuesday when District 97 students start classes. OPRF students started classes today, but Piekarski and her staff got a head start at the beginning of the week.
The lunch pilot program between OPRF and Dist. 97 was in the works since last year. Spearheaded by the elementary school PTOs, school officials at both districts finalized the partnership this spring. Piekarski and her staff will prepare, pack and deliver meals cooked at OPRF’s kitchens to students at Beye and Irving.
“It’s always hectic around this time,” said Piekarski as she darted through OPRF’s North Cafeteria kitchen in a maze of stainless steel ovens, refrigerators and counters.
Officials at OPRF, including Piekarski, met with Dist. 97 officials last fall, and both groups have met with parents to work out the menu. Beye and Irving were officially announced as the pilot schools by Dist. 97 Supt. Constance Collins in May.
The menu looks pretty tasty: chicken corn dogs with whole grain breading, whole wheat quesadillas, and fresh fruit and vegetables are just some of the samplings for the first month. Piekarski said parents in Dist. 97 had a major say in the menu.
“If some parents didn’t think the kids would like a certain item, we changed it to fit their needs,” said Piekarski. “Whatever the parents want to do, we’ll try to make it happen as long as it falls under our budget.”
OPRF will charge Dist. 97 for the meals and labor. Preferred Meal Systems Inc., an outside food provider, will continue serving lunches at other Dist. 97 schools.
If the pilot lunch program proves successful, though, it could expand district-wide.
Wellness Policy approved
The launch of the pilot program coincides with Dist. 97’s new Wellness Policy for all elementary and middle schools. The District 97 Board of Education approved the policy last week.
The state and federal governments have mandated all schools to implement school wellness policies this year. The policy, according to federal guidelines, also requires school districts to establish nutrition education, physical activity and other school-based activities to promote good health.
The Wellness Policy applies not only to schools but other school community groups, including the PTOs.
“I’m not sure how that will work,” said Ellen Pimentel, PTO co-chair for Beye. “It’s my understanding that the PTOs also fall under the Wellness Policy.”
But that doesn’t mean that sweets and other snacks should be outlawed from kids, she warns.
“My thing is, you feed them a variety of things,” said Pimental. “There’s nothing wrong with giving them a snack every now and then. But if you don’t give them a whole category of foods, they’re going to eat what’s readily available, and those are usually things that are not good for them.”
Piekarski, a nutritionist herself, agrees.
“I’ve never been one to say that kids should never eat sweets, and oh how bad it is,” she said. “It’s about offering more choices, not taking them away.”
States, though, have cracked down on vending and soda machines at schools that sell mostly junk foods. Illinois and other states have passed laws banning vending machines at schools.
Irving ready for program
While most Oak Park parents were getting their kids ready to return to school this fall, Irving PTO co-chair Ron Martin was doing the same-that is, in between screwing in a few more bolts of the school’s newly purchased steam tables to hold its meals from OPRF.
The PTOs at Beye and Irving footed the bill for the tables, which will keep the meals from OPRF’s kitchen warm for students.
Irving’s PTO received a sampling of the menu last Wednesday, served up Piekarski herself. Beye did a tasting on Tuesday. The sampling included small offerings of grilled white meat chicken nuggets, chicken tenders with no breading, and the whole grain chicken corn dogs.
Martin, who by Monday still had a few screws to put into the steam tables for next week, predicts that the program will be a success.
“I think it’s going to be great for the kids and great for the school,” he said.