When school lunch is portrayed in children’s literature and in cartoons, it often involves an image of a woman with a hair net and plastic gloves slinging mystery meat onto a tray.
Indian Prairie School District 204’s new food service provider is working hard to get rid of that stereotype and is preparing to survey parents and students on the quality of school lunches these days.
Last July, the Board of Education switched its food service from Chartwells to Aramark in an effort to save the district $175,000 and provide better quality food for the district’s 29,500 students.
In a presentation to the School Board this week, Melissa Pementel, district general manager for Aramark, showed that participation in the district lunch program has increased by 5 percent since her organization took over six months ago. In addition, participation in breakfast at school grew by 14 percent.
While breakfast is not offered at all Indian Prairie schools yet, Aramark is looking to expand the program. Just this year, breakfast options were added to White Eagle Elementary and Scullen Middle School. Breakfast also is served at Brookdale, Brooks, Cowlishaw, Georgetown, Gombert, Longwood, McCarty, Owen, Welch and Young Elementary schools and Fischer, Granger, Hill and Still Middle schools, as well as at all three high schools.
When Aramark was hired, the food service provider pledged to increase communication about the food service program with parents and students.
Among the most challenging areas were meals for children on gluten-free diets, said Tim Keeley, Indian Prairie’s director of support services.
Because the parent group was already in place with the previous food vendor, Keeley said a great deal of feedback was given to design gluten-free alternatives.
Parents also have assisted the district and Aramark expand the number of vegetarian options, according to the presentation.
Pementel said one of the biggest additions to the overall lunch program was powered trucks. As in the past, food is prepared at a central location and transported via truck to the elementary schools. Now that the trucks have power supplies, the food can be transported and remain at a constant temperature.
Keely said in the past his phone would ring constantly with complaints that the bread was hard or the turkey was cold. That is not the case this year.
Keeley said popular at the elementary school level is a “Grab and Go” option or something similar to prepackaged deli-meat/yogurt/cheese and cracker lunches that appeal to kids. These options lessen the time students have to wait in the lunch line, providing more time for students to eat.
“Anything we can do to get the kids through the line quicker, the better,” Keeley said.
Keeley said now that all the kinks of setting up a new food service provider have been ironed out, it is time to survey parents and students.
The survey will be similar to past surveys so the district can compare “apples-to-apples,” Keeley said.
Until the survey comes out, parents and students can raise concerns or send messages on the district website under the “School Lunch Program” link.
Pementel said Aramark also will begin to focus on the Free and Reduced Meals program to ensure all students who are eligible are taking advantage of free or reduced breakfast and lunch options.