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District 219 Hires New Food Vendor

Changes coming in menu as high schools join federal lunch program.

Students at Niles West and Niles North high schools in Skokie will be seeing some different options in the lunch line when they return to classes in August.

The Niles Township High School District 219 school board approved a contract with Organic Life as its a new food service vendor and opted to participate in the National School Lunch Program.

“Several factors led to this recommendation,” said Paul O’Malley, the assistant superintendent for business services, at a board meeting last month. “We believe we will have much healthier food, and that is something we heard over and over from our students. They want something that not only looks good but tastes good.”

Aramark previously had the contract for nine years. Its bid did not include a plan to participate in the federal school lunch program, which enables qualified students to receive free and reduced-price meals.

The district expects to receive more than $654,000 in reimbursements for the lunch program from the federal government next year, according to a memo O’Malley wrote for the school board. Money that does not pay for food must be used to offset the cost of capital improvements, personnel and other expenses in the food service program.

Some of the money will go toward the cost of hiring one or two staff members whose job it will be to make sure that the district remains in compliance with all of the national school lunch program’s requirements.

The change makes sense because the proportion of District 219 students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals--based on household income--has risen from about 5 percent in 2006 to more than 30 percent last year, according to O’Malley.

In February, the school board asked administrators for proposals for both participating in the national school lunch program and remaining outside of the program.

Aramark and Organic Life were the only two vendors who met all the requirements for the national school lunch program bid, including offering a taste test on May 2. The students, staff and board members who participated rated Organic Life’s food as tastier than Aramark’s, and Organic Life’s bid said that it could produce meals at a lower cost than its competitor.

Organic Life also said that it could work with dietary requirements of District 219’s religiously and ethnically diverse student body of more than 4,500 teenagers. One student taste tester followed the halal dietary laws of Islam and was able to eat well at the taste test, said school board vice president Sheri Doniger.

“This is not something we go into lightly,” Doniger said. “The students were integral to working with us on this.”

One down side of going with the National Student Lunch Program is that it will increase District 219’s per-pupil operating costs, since the federal money for the program flows into district coffers before being paid out for the program, said school board president Robert Silverman. Under the old model, money from meals went directly to the vendor.

School officials would like to see the operating expense per pupil (OEPP) drop--or at least not increase--because, as of 2009, the district had the second-highest operating expense per pupil among high school districts in Illinois. Also, some taxpayers have questioned whether the district could provide education with a smaller price tag.

“We’ll have to look elsewhere to reduce our OEPP costs,” Silverman said.

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