Cracking The Code On School Lunches At CPS

Trying to find out nutritional information – including fat, calorie and salt content – on cafeteria offerings at Chicago Public Schools is no easy task.

As a member of a local school council, Leonard Becker thought he could get a straightforward answer to a question about the nutritional content of Chicago Public Schools meals.

But the reply from a CPS official surprised him. "All foods served meet national guidelines but, individually, we don't have that information," the official said at the October school council meeting, according to Becker, who is a CPS parent.

How can such vital information not be available from schools, he wondered, at a time when virtually every food item sold at a grocery – and at many restaurants – is labeled with details about calories, fat, sodium and other nutritional facts?

A Better Government Association inquiry confirmed that getting the skinny about breaded fish melts, chicken patty sandwiches, cinnamon French toast sticks or any other item served at Chicago schools is not easy – and it's not likely to get much easier for a while.

A CPS official told us the district is at least a year away from posting online nutrition information that would make it much simpler for parents to gauge the healthiness of elementary and high school breakfasts and lunches.

So how tough is it to get such information now?

Back in late October the BGA called Aramark, CPS' food vendor, asking about nutrition in the schools. The company referred us to CPS. We called there and talked to a CPS nutritionist, who we asked to provide information on about 20 menu items, including breaded fish melts, chicken nuggets and other dishes. After checking with others at CPS, she said she couldn't give us that information because we're a media organization. She told us we'd have to submit a written request under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA. That's a state law requiring that public agencies generally provide records, upon request, within five business days.

We sent CPS an expanded request under FOIA on Nov. 20. On Nov. 28, a CPS official asked for extra time, saying she'd need until January to provide a full response.

We pushed back and said we wanted the information right away. We got the data from CPS on Dec. 5, after CPS retrieved it from Aramark.

For all the trouble we encountered getting the data, we found that, at least on paper, CPS appears to be operating within the latest U.S. requirements for calories, fat and salt – though it should be noted the federal guidelines still allow a high amount of salt in the school meals. What's more, there's a footnote in the documents: "Ingredients and menu items are subject to change or substitution without notice." CPS explains that sometimes schools run out of certain foods, so menu items are swapped out.

Aramark is paid a lot of money by CPS – in other words, by taxpayers. The district forked over about $80 million last school year to Aramark as part of a five-year cafeteria contract, said Leslie Fowler, who runs the school meals program for CPS. The vendor is paid according to how many students actually take meals, she added.

Aramark gets its food from multiple sources, including suppliers for major food companies. Given that the lunches are prepared with a large amount of processed food, a number of items listed on the district's menu contain high levels of salt (referenced as sodium). Bread is a major source of salt in school meals, and even milk adds to the total sodium count, Fowler said.

"Of all the things we struggle with the most, it's sodium," Fowler said, adding that she's working with food suppliers to provide lower-salt offerings.

As for specifics of the CPS menu, the breaded fish melt (served to elementary school students) contains 342 calories, more than 11 grams of fat and 711 milligrams of sodium, which is almost a third of the recommended daily limit (2,300 milligrams, or about a teaspoon) for salt intake.

Federal law requires that individual school meals contain no more than 1,230 milligrams of sodium for students in kindergarten through fifth grade, no more than 1,360 for middle school/junior high kids and no more than 1,420 milligrams for high schoolers.

The chicken patty sandwich, also served to younger kids, includes 400 calories, 17 grams of fat and 636 milligrams of sodium. A French toast stick is 220 calories, seven grams of fat and 380 milligrams of sodium.

CPS and Aramark officials said parents can ask for specific information about school meals and the district will try to quickly get them in contact with an Aramark dietician. As a media organization, the BGA is treated differently and is required to go through the FOIA process, district officials told us. As for the lack of online information, CPS and Aramark called it a "complex" undertaking because there are hundreds of menu items to identify.

'Big Improvements'?

Last school year, CPS provided an average of almost 150,000 meals a day. The school system has just under 400,000 students.

The U.S. government has warned that too many kids are eating more than the recommended levels of salt, raising the risks for high blood pressure as well as heart disease and stroke later in life.

Federal law, enacted in 2010, requires more fruit, vegetables and whole grains, limits salt and calories, and cuts out trans fats. Few of the lunches being served to Chicago students may be described as a nutritionist's dream but even critics say that the 2010 law provided for far better standards for public school meals – especially for the students who aren't getting healthy or regular meals at home.

"These are really big improvements in school lunches," said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest. "They're really making progress but they still have a way to go."

Wootan said CPS and other school districts should be as transparent as possible to provide specific information about the menu items.

Ingredients Also Elusive

Earlier this year, WBEZ reported on its fight with Chicago schools officials to get ingredients for school meals.

When WBEZ asked for the ingredients used in school lunch chicken nuggets, the district initially responded that the only ingredient was "chicken nuggets," according to the station's report.

Wootan said, "This is what we're trying to avoid. If parents or journalists or members of the community want to know about nutrition information, they should know how their school is doing."

Philadelphia-based Aramark is a large contractor for school districts and colleges across the country. The company, also hired by CPS to provide janitorial services, was blasted by parents, teachers and principals at the beginning of the current school year because of filthy classrooms and other problems.

The Aramark food contract also has been controversial, too. A rival bidder accused Fowler, a former Aramark executive, of showing favoritism toward her longtime past employer. Fowler said she did nothing wrong and the procurement process was conducted properly. The Office of Inspector General completed an investigation of the bid process and the findings will be available next month.

This column – a new regular feature called The Public Eye, appearing on the Chicago Sun-Times' political portal Early & Often – was written and reported by the Better Government Association's Brett Chase. He can be reached at bchase@bettergov.org or (312) 821-9033.