Lunch staffers to CPS: We want to cook

January 25, 2012

(WBEZ/Linda Lutton)
CPS food workers call on the district to build ‘full-size kitchen facilities capable of real cooking.’

Chicago schools are serving more healthy food than they were a couple years ago, but many kitchen workers seem to think the district still has a long way to go.

For the 2010-11 school year, Chicago Public Schools switched to menus with more whole grains, a wider array of vegetables, and less sodium, starch, sugar and fat. For the current school year, the district made its breakfast offerings more nutritious. The district says it’s also adding more salad bars.

A union that represents about 3,200 CPS food workers on Tuesday released survey findings suggesting that many students and even school principals are not eating the chow. UNITE HERE Local 1 criticized the district’s use of frozen food prepared off site, and called on the Board of Education to “ensure that all new school construction proj­ects are planned with full-size kitchen facilities capable of real cooking.”

Linda Green, a 22-year CPS employee who works in the Southwest Side’s Grimes Elementary kitchen, said students are eating less of what she serves than they once did. “There is a lot of waste because it’s just unappetizing,” said Green, who helped conduct the survey. “If it’s cooked on site you can use more seasoning and make it more flavorful.”

Local 1 said 436 CPS food employees completed the survey in December. According to the union, 42 percent felt that students were eating the new food, 50 percent reported they rarely or never had observed their principals eating their cafeteria’s lunch offerings, 75 percent indicated they had not had a chance to provide input about the new menu and recipes, 62 percent wanted more training on healthy food and 39 percent felt they could report food quality or safety concerns to parents or students without facing discipline.

A CPS statement says about a quarter of the district’s schools now serve food prepared mostly off site. The statement says that “all new elementary schools are being built with a warming kitchen” and that “all new middle and high schools are being built with cooking kitchens.”

“The food that is brought into the warming kitchen meets the same nutritional guidelines as the food in the cooking school model,” the statement adds. “We are committed to providing healthy and nutritious meals for all students at all schools. Delivery of this meal may depend on a variety of factors including kitchen capacity, facility size and condition as well as cost. However, nutritional standards are consistent across all schools. Vendors, regardless of delivery system, are expected to meet the same nutritional standards.”

The survey findings came as the U.S. Department of Agriculture planned a Wednesday unveiling of the first major changes in school meal standards in more than 15 years. The department says the new rules aim to reduce childhood obesity by “ensuring kids are offered fruits and vegetables every day of the week, substantially increasing offerings of whole grain-rich foods, offering only fat-free or low-fat milk varieties and making sure kids are getting proper portion sizes.”

A version of the guidelines the department proposed more than a year ago would also have cut down on potatoes, made it harder for schools to report pizza tomato paste as a vegetable, and halved the amount of sodium in school meals. In November, lawmakers blocked the department from carrying out those rules.