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Archdiocese Considers Outsourcing School Meals, Citing Cost of Healthy Food

CHICAGO — The Archdiocese of Chicago is weighing whether to outsource production of breakfasts and lunches for its 34 high schools and 300 elementary schools because of rising food costs and government regulations.

As part of the change, the archdiocese may sell its food service preparation facility at 5150 N. Northwest Highway in Jefferson Park, and 200 people could lose their jobs, said John Koubeck, the president of FSP, the archdiocese’s food service program.

As part of first lady Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign, school meals now much include more vegetables and whole grains, which are more expensive to purchase and prepare, said Koubeck, who has been with FSP for 35 years.

The government regulations, signed into law in 2010,  are mandated to begin by the 2013-14 school year, which starts in August, Koubeck said.

“We have to do the responsible thing” and explore every possible way to reduce costs and keep the price of the meals as low as possible, Koubeck said.

FSP, which was founded in 1970 and is a nonprofit business, serves about 75,000 meals a day, and about half of those are breakfasts and lunches that are sent to schools ready to be heated and served to students, Koubeck said.

Proposals are due May 7 from companies interested in providing the ready-to-serve meals, said Koubeck. A larger company may be able to produce the meals more cheaply, he said.

Employees are upset about the looming changes, Koubeck said.

“We put our heart and soul into our food,” Koubeck said. “We do feel good about providing meals for our students.”

Food prices are expected to rise 3 to 4 percent this year because of last summer’s drought and higher gas prices, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act made major changes to school meals for the first time in 15 years. Michelle Obama, who has campaigned to combat childhood obesity through improved nutrition and more exercise, said the changes will help parents raise a healthier generation of children, according to the USDA website.

Before the changes went into effect, a typical student lunch would consist of a bean and cheese burrito with mozzarella cheese, applesauce, orange juice and 2 percent milk.

The new standards replace that lunch with a turkey and low-fat cheese sandwich with mustard and reduced-fat mayonnaise on a whole-wheat roll, a half-cup of refried beans,  half-cup of jicama (a legume), quarter-cup of green pepper strips, half-cup of cantaloupe wedges, 1 ounce of low-fat ranch dressing dip and a cup of skim milk.

Tammy Reinekieng, a dietician who has been with FSP for 13 years, said the turkey sandwich lunch is much costlier to produce than the classic bean burrito — but also better for kids.

“These are good changes,” Reinekieng said. “It gives children a chance to become familiar with foods they might not have been introduced to at home.”

The changes would go into effect for the 2013-14 school year, which starts in August, Koubeck said.

“We want to reassure families that the quality of the meals will stay the same,” Koubeck said, noting that those standards are also set by state law.

Proposals that include plans to hire FSP’s 200 employees will be favored, and the new provider may also choose to purchase FSP’s facility on Northwest Highway and Milwaukee Avenue, Koubeck said.