How Local Food Systems Can Transform School Lunchrooms and Brighten Futures

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With locally-grown food in their diets, students have stopped getting fast food and vending machine snacks for lunch, feel sustained until dinner time, and are more alert in class. The students have also grown closer to the cafeteria staff and gained a greater appreciation for food and where it comes from. IEC pays a visit to Pawnee Schools to see their farm-to-table school lunch program!

By: Maxine Touchette, Conservation Intern

Pawnee Schools CUSD #11 recently invited IEC staff to a lunch reception highlighting the story of how a local food system came together to provide healthier lunches for their students. The mouthwatering meal we had was the same one students received that day! To say we were impressed would be an understatement. And the results of the pilot program we learned about span beyond just health. The school has noticed a huge shift in students’ academic performance and attention spans. Most astonishingly, just a couple of years ago, none of this would have been possible.

A 2016 report from Beyond Green Partners, a B Corp (i.e., transparent and ethical company with social impact) food service committed to zero-waste cooking and sustainable sourcing, assessed Sangamon and Lincoln County Schools’ lunch programs. The report showed that at the time, 95% of the food was imported from out of state and that there was unanimous interest in a local food system, though no one knew where to start in creating one.

In 2022, students posted photos highlighting the state of Peoria school lunches. Though the unappetizing meals sparked outrage across the Internet, Speaker Pro Tempore of the Illinois House Jehan Gordon-Booth stepped in to note that this issue is not unique to Peoria. This led Leader Gordon-Booth to introduce HB4813, which was sponsored by Sen. Ram Villivalam in the Illinois Senate.

Collage of photos of Peoria school lunches, from left to right & top to bottom: a plain hotdog on an open bun, a burnt and amorphous personal pizza, an open bun with unseasoned chicken patty, an open faced sandwich made of sliced bread, turkey & cheese, and three chicken tenders. Food all looks to be sub-par quality.
Photos of school lunches from students in Peoria, IL from 2022, credit: WCBU
Until the passage of this bill, the Illinois School Code limited schools’ food options through the “Low Bid Requirement.” Schools were mandated to purchase food from the lowest bidder, which meant cheap and unhealthy stuff from out of state almost always beat out quality ingredients grown by local farmers.

In 2022, IEC and partners like the Illinois Stewardship Alliance (@ilstewards) and Chicago Food Policy Action Council (CFPAC, @chifoodpolicy) pushed for HB4813, which removed this requirement for the procurement of food items that meet the following:

  • Procure food that promotes the health and well-being of students;  
  • Comply with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s nutrition standards for school meals;  
  • Promote the production of scratch-made, minimally processed food;  
  • Give preference to locally sourced products;  
  • Give preference to food suppliers that use producers that adopt hormone and pest management practices recommended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture;  
  • Give preference to food suppliers that value animal welfare; and  
  • Increase opportunities for businesses owned and operated by minorities, women, or individuals with disabilities.

Since Governor Pritzker signed HB4813 into law, Beyond Green has been able to better connect school cafeterias to local food options. Founder Greg Christian and his staff got to work implementing a pilot program in Pawnee Schools. Beyond Green was contracted by Sangamon County to explore the potential feasibility of farm-to-school lunch, with Pawnee being their first project. Greg and his team built this new food system from the ground up, coordinating with farmers and encouraging them to grow for the district.

After one semester, the results are very impressive: students have stopped getting fast food and vending machine snacks for lunch, they feel sustained until dinner time and are more alert in class. Nicole Goodall, Principal of Pawnee High School, also noted that it has solved food insecurity issues and that it was many students’ first encounter with home-cooked meals. 
Locally grown proteins are often accompanied by uncommon heirloom fruits and vegetables that aren’t typically found at the supermarket, like purple cauliflower – so students initially mistakenly believed the food might be rotten. Nicole Goodall stepped into the role of “king’s cupbearer,” where she tested her students’ food to show it was edible and delicious. She joked that the students were put in a good position, where if she were to be poisoned, the school day would be canceled. She also shared that, in the case of student-athletes, school-provided breakfast and lunch may be their only meals of the day since practices run long and games go on into the night. Then, they return home exhausted after dinnertime. Having only one or two meals a day is a reality for many other students – 10.5% of Pawnee residents live below the poverty line, where food may not be guaranteed for students when they return home. 
The students have also grown closer to the cafeteria staff and gained a greater appreciation for food and where it comes from. After many taste tests, they have all come to love the new meal program, which is not only healthier and fresher, but also supports local farmers and creates sustainable agriculture career paths close to home. Surprisingly, the program’s food costs also come in under their previous meal budget!

Here’s a snapshot of what we enjoyed:

Photo of school lunch tray provided by Beyond Green. Tray contains: garlic green beans, maple acorn squash with local pea tendrils, herb-roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, a blueberry muffin, a spinach salad, and homemade apple sauce.

Our food trays contained goods from several local farms and local food growers: Maple acorn squash from Mueller Family Farm, herb-roasted chicken from Bland Family Farm, blueberry muffins from Janie’s Mill, homemade apple sauce from Gregory Farmhouse and a spinach salad with lardon, radishes, and citrus fruits from Moon Girl Farm, Reeman’s and Golden Gate Farms.

All in all, the food program that Beyond Green Partners implemented was very inspiring to all who attended, including local legislators Senator Doris Turner and Representative Wayne Rosenthal and the Sangamon County School Board members, who were exploring the program’s potential for scalability. 

If this means getting even more locally grown food into our students’ diets, that’s a win in our book! 

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