PEORIA – There have always been complaints about school lunch, but the voices have gotten louder lately.
More than 100 parents recently shared on Facebook with the Journal Star thoughts they and their kids had about lunches in districts across central Illinois. Complaints were not only about taste, but also about food quality and freshness. Many said their children begged for a sack lunch to avoid eating the hot lunch.
One state lawmaker from Peoria has introduced a bill, HB 4813, to help boost the quality of what’s being served in school lunches.
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‘She’ll come home hungry’
Lacey Nelton didn’t take her 12-year-old daughter seriously when she first started asking to pack a sack lunch for the noontime meal at Washington Gifted Middle School in Peoria. Then Nelton started hearing others make similar complaints.
“I started seeing photos and I heard from some people in the district that a lot of the lunches aren’t very good,” said Nelton. “So I started to let her take a cold lunch. Some mornings, though, we’re in a rush, so she may not take one, and those are the days that, a lot of times, she’ll come home hungry.”
Packing lunch isn’t a big deal to Nelton, but she realizes it might be more difficult for other families.
“My concern is for the kids with families who maybe can’t afford that and rely on those lunches,” said Nelton.
Illinois forces ‘a race to the bottom,’ says lawmaker
In Peoria Public Schools, a majority of the students rely on the free and reduced-cost meal program for both breakfast and lunch. Child hunger is a problem so prevalent in the district that feeding students was a priority even when they weren’t in school during the pandemic. Ironically, it’s that high level of need that may be contributing to the low quality of meals being served in the district, said Illinois state Rep. Jehan Gordon-Booth.
“School districts heavily reliant on free and reduced lunches are forced, as a construct of the school procurement code, to always go with the lowest bidder,” said Gordon-Booth. “We are telling individuals who want to bid for the school lunch contract that the only way that you have the ability to win is that it must be the lowest price. … It is inherently a race to the bottom.”
Forty-eight other states do not enforce this rule, said Gordon-Booth. The National School Lunch Program, a federal program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, does not require schools to take the lowest bid. In Illinois, the rule is written into the state procurement code.
Being forced to accept the lowest bid constrains school districts from selecting the best-qualified contractors to meet the nutritional needs of students, said Sharon Desmoulin-Kherat, superintendent of Peoria Public Schools.
“The flexibility that would come with the adoption of this proposed act stands to benefit school districts because they will be empowered to choose vendors who provide better services and quality," said Desmoulin-Kherat. “The act will also make it possible for students to be fed wholesome, local, fresh and tasty food from vendors that may not necessarily be the lowest bidders."
Gordon-Booth doesn’t know why Illinois created the rule, but learning about it prompted her to write legislation to change state procurement code, eliminating the requirement to accept the lowest bid. She introduced initial legislation in 2019 with the intent to push it forward in 2020, but it got waylaid by the pandemic. HB 4813 was finally filed in the House at the end of January and already has three co-sponsors. Gordon-Booth is asking for public support and said the bill is already popular.
“The support that we have for this bill is unbelievable. It is across the state, it is in communities that I didn’t even realize are dealing with this as an issue,” she said.
In districts not required to choose the lowest bidder, the process of selecting a food supplier can be something even students can participate in, said Gordon-Booth.
“The different companies that may want the business of that school district, they will come in and they will provide the lunches for a full week. You’ll have company A, company B, company C, and they will try to earn the business not just of the school, the administration, but the business of the students,” she said. “This is what I’m seeing happening in some of the suburban communities … but it seems like something that’s so far from reach from us. But why is that? School districts are literally spending millions of dollars on lunches, but we’re forced to take whatever is given because it is free? No.”
Leslie Renken can be reached at 309-370-5087 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.
This article originally appeared on Journal Star: New legislation in Illinois underway to improve school lunches
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February 9, 2022 at 06:44AM