St. Charles high schools: Students won't buy healthy lunches

St. Charles high schools drop healthier lunches, food sales rise

St. Charles' high school students would rather eat roast beef melts, pizza and barbecue chicken flatbreads than whole wheat spaghetti and green beans.

That's no surprise for St. Charles Unit District 303 officials, but it is a financial verification of their decision to ditch the National School Lunch Program at the high schools this school year.

Officials are so pleased with the results they may opt out of the federal lunch program at the district's middle schools in another year.

The federal government implemented new rules for participants in its lunch program in the summer of 2014.

It reduced the amount of sodium food could contain and required greater use of whole grains.

Lunch sales plummeted when District 303 officials adopted a new menu to reflect those standards. The district served about 200,000 fewer meals.

Satisfaction surveys indicated students didn't like the limited food options or how those options tasted.

The district dumped the program about six months ago. They also worked with their food contractor, Aramark, to provide a larger variety of a la carte foods.

Those foods have now become more popular than anything offered in either the free and reduced lunch program or the paid, packaged lunches.

Overall, there's been a 20 percent increase in meals served since the change.

“We are providing them with the food they actually want now,” said Seth Chapman, the district's chief financial officer.

The district's food satisfaction surveys are also slowly improving. Districtwide, students have rated food at 3.4 on a five-point scale.

“Obviously, we'd like to be up in the fours, but we all know school food is a tough sell,” Chapman said. “The students always want cheaper food and better food.”

Middle school students may get at least one of those. School board members suggested dropping the federal lunch program at middle schools to fuel participation and satisfaction among those students as well.

Superintendent Don Schlomann urged a one-year delay. By then the nation will have a new president. First lady Michelle Obama has been a driving force in the school nutrition changes.

Federal lawmakers are already contemplating a loosening of some of the standards.

In the meantime, elementary and middle school students in District 303 will likely pay more for the food they currently receive. Food sales in those grades are a financial loser for the district.

Officials want to raise the price of meals to $2.50 for students from kindergarten through eighth grade. Right now, paid meals cost $2.30 at the elementary schools and $2.40 at the middle schools.

The free and reduced-price meals would not be impacted. The full school board must vote on the price change before it is implemented.

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