When Steve Berggren first learned that combo meals — an entree that includes fruits or vegetables — are free at Oak Park and River Forest High School, he was shocked. And, when he found out the menu classified French fries on the list of veggie options next to fresh celery, chickpeas and tossed salads he became concerned.
“‘You have that backwards. The combo meal is always more expensive,’” said Berggren, a father of two OPRF students, recalling a conversation with one of his teenage daughters. “She said, ‘Not at Oak Park.’ I said, ‘Are you serious?’ She said, ‘Yeah, it’s free as long as you get the fries.’”
Berggren said one of his children recently noticed she has become more prone to gaining weight. Berggren said his family often encourages one another to try and make healthy food choices, and at home do “pretty well.” And through his daughters, Berggren quickly learned what kind of food they and many other students are provided at school.
“I don’t know if people know about this or not, but I cannot believe it,” he said.
Micheline Piekarski, director of food services at OPRF, offered an explanation as to why the high school’s lunch menu is structured that way. Under the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), school cafeterias nationwide must provide five types of food: protein, bread, vegetable, fruit and milk, she said. In response to the pandemic, a new waiver from the USDA allows schools to continue serving free breakfast and lunch – the combo meals – to students regardless of their families’ income, Piekarksi said. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, combo meals typically cost about $4. Federal guidelines state that meals are free when students pair an entree like a hamburger or chicken patty on a whole grain bun with fruits or vegetables. And, French fries are considered a vegetable, according to the USDA, Piekarski said.
“I’d say 80% of our children take the fries as their vegetables, and they can still have fruit,” she said. “They can have broccoli in the bag, and they can have an apple. They can even take more. I’ve never held back on how many fruits and vegetables they’ve taken. They can have as much as they want, but they have to have at least a fruit or vegetable.”
Aside from Berggren, other students at OPRF are calling for more variety of hot meals. Through student council, high school junior Grace Koch said the upperclassmen are requesting the return of the stir fry and Asian-style orange chicken. Pre-pandemic, some older students even remembered when the cafeteria would serve sushi, she said. Nowadays, options are limited to Bosco mozzarella sticks, pizza or nachos, “which are not very healthy, not very filling and are not really a great alternative,” Koch said.
“I can’t eat that five days a week,” said Koch, who noted more and more of her peers are bringing their own lunch to school.
The cafeteria does also sell bistro boxes, packed with items like hard boiled eggs, yogurt, string cheese, hummus and flatbreads and come with a side of fruits and fresh vegetables, she said.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Piekarksi said it’s tougher to expand the school menu and bring back certain items. For example, Piekarksi cited a slow supply chain from allowing her to offer any Asian-style orange chicken. Ongoing construction to the school’s north cafeteria and Covid safety mitigations are currently posing an issue for Piekarski and her staff, preventing them from creating more hot food options.
But Piekarski remains hopeful and focused.
“I hope to bring back, in January, the ‘stir fry line’ and ‘make your own sandwich line,’” said Piekarski, as construction is slated to wrap up by early 2022.