Recipe for a healthy revolution in school lunches

Students look at the various cafeteria food stations available at Niles West High School in Skokie, Ill.

CHICAGO -- For lunch, Josh Rivera chose a plate of saffron rice, Jerusalem salad and a Greek-marinated kebab of free-range chicken raised without antibiotics.

"Last year, I used to get a burger and pizza, but they were really greasy," the high school sophomore said. "This is a lot tastier than before."

Lynn Vo, a sophomore who was eating organic fruit salad with penne in a Bolognese sauce with grass-fed beef, agreed.

"Last year, the pasta tasted like sweat," she said. "But this year it's really good."

It's astonishing enough that notoriously picky high schoolers would have something nice to say about their cafeteria, in this case the one at Niles North High School. But these meals containing premium ingredients are provided free to low-income students or sold for $2.25 at most.

A fascinating experiment has been playing out in recent months in Niles Township High School District 219, where a student petition for better lunch, changing demographics and a willing school board led to a massive overhaul of the lunch program this year by a Chicago company called OrganicLife.

In August, the company took over operations from Aramark food services and began serving daily meals of sustainable, local and organic food to 4,700 students at Niles North and Niles West high schools in Skokie, Ill., just north of Chicago.

It is presenting these meals under the supervision of the National School Lunch Program, which provides federal funding in exchange for meeting certain requirements.

This year was the first time in decades the historically middle-class district has taken part in the program, spurred by poverty rates that grew from 16 percent in 2007 to 31 percent today.

The overhaul coincides with national calls for school lunch reform, though Congress this month blocked many of the tougher federal standards that had been proposed for 2012. Some have argued that providers couldn't meet the standards under current levels of federal funding.

OrganicLife co-founder Justin Rolls would not provide detailed financial information but says the company is making things work by cooking economically from scratch, buying high-quality items in bulk, boosting sales through tastier food and factoring in slimmer profits as part of the business plan.

In its spring bid to the district, OrganicLife offered to deliver more healthful lunches for $1.24 per meal.

Since arriving, Rolls said, the company has significantly boosted lunch sales among the district's low-income population to 85 percent, bringing in dependable reimbursements of $2.77 per meal from the federal government.

Laid out in seven stations similar to a food court, the cafeterias must offer seven to 10 complete lunches each day that can be served free or for 40 cents to about 1,200 low-income students under the National School Lunch Program.

Others can buy the meal for $2.25 or pay extra for "a la carte" items or more elaborate lunches.

To chef Ann Cooper, who overhauled school lunch systems in Berkeley, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., that kind of multitiered lunchroom menu has drawbacks. With a few exceptions, Cooper said, she presents the same complete meals to all kids regardless of income.

"I don't want to criticize it," she said, "but I worry that when you have some kids who can afford your more expensive lunches and you have other kids who can't, you are creating a stigma around the free lunches and increasing the chasm between the haves and have-nots."