DOWNERS GROVE – Downers Grove High School District 99 is considering leaving the National School Lunch Program as the number of students buying hot lunches drops.
Doing so would free the district from the more stringent nutrition standards set by the federal government, along with about $520,364 in federal money, according to the district.
Since 2012, the total number of lunches served daily has dropped from 2,066 to 1,706. Of the lunches served, the number of paid lunches dropped from 1,309 to 884, while the number of free lunches jumped from 607 to 716.
About 35 percent of students enrolled in the district were eating a hot lunch the past two years, after holding largely steady at 39 percent until 2013, according to figures provided by District 99 Controller Mark Staehlin at the Aug. 18 board meeting.
The drop-off coincided with the first-year federal regulations for more stringent nutrition standards changed menus substantially.
“When you go from regular hamburger buns to a wheat bun, a lot of kids don’t want that anymore,” Staehlin said.
However, district officials aren’t ready to place the sole blame on the new standards, and Staehlin mentioned the lingering effects from the recession, along with an increase in the price of a meal to $2.50 as possible factors.
The district previously offered two meal options, one for $2 and one with larger portions for $2.35. Last year, the prices increased to $2.25 and $2.50 for the respective meals. A la carte has remained an option throughout.
“I’m very interested in our kids having a nutritious lunch,” District 99 Board member Michael Davenport said. “And I think the guidelines the government is putting out and asking us to follow is laudable, those are great things to aspire to. However, we have 65 percent of the students saying ‘I’m not going to participate.’ So what are they eating? I’m just surmising that what they’re bringing to lunch is not as nutritious as they should be.”
This year, the district found a new vendor, Quest, to replace Aramark, which served the district for more than 20 years.
“We don’t really know what to blame the reduction on,” Staehlin said. “It will be interesting to see if Quest can increase the participation, they have certainly focused on that.”
He said Quest strategies include flavored waters from a fountain machine and healthy Sobe drinks to entice students to buy lunch. The company is known for its emphasis on fresh, nonprocessed foods.
Staehlin said the district is merely analyzing options and has not made any decisions whether to leave the National School Lunch Program. Some district’s like Hinsdale’s has never participated, and Lake Park recently left the program.
If District 99 left the program, it would lose about $10,489 in state money, in addition to the loss of $520,364 in federal money. The two combine to account for 32 percent of the district’s food service revenue.
The district would still be required to serve free lunches to students who qualify. It would not be required to offer reduced lunches for students who qualify for those, although Staehlin said less than 100 students get reduced lunches, so the district could decide to continue that program regardless.
Staehlin said the board will have new information and numbers from Quest near the end of the semester for further review.