When students at Brook Park School and S.E. Gross Middle School sit down for lunch this year, they’ll no longer be faced with reheated meals prepared far in advance and trucked in from miles away.
Instead, the food — options ranging from deli sandwiches to various entrees — will be made fresh daily and brought to the schools from nearby Riverside.
Students will no longer have to decide a month in advance what they want to eat on a given day. In fact, they can decide whether they want a hot lunch offering that very morning.
That’s because beginning this school year, hot lunches for District 95 will be prepared daily at Riverside-Brookfield High School through an intergovernmental agreement approved this summer by both districts’ school boards.
“The kids have just been begging for something different,” said Mark Kuzniewski, who has been at the helm of the district since 2009.
For the past eight years, D95 has had its hot lunches provided by Ceres Food Group, which is based on Chicago’s Northwest Side. While the company has at times tried providing fresher options for students, its bread and butter was providing hot meals every day, transported from warming centers, where frozen meals were heated up.
Each month, students would have to choose from a limited menu for each school day. If the child turned out to be sick that day, they would basically be out a lunch they had paid for.
With Ceres’ contract with the district up at the end of the 2012-13 school year, Kuzniewski began seeking bids for a food provider and found Quest Food Management Services, a Lombard-based company, which has been the food-service provider for Riverside-Brookfield High School.
At RBHS, Quest employees prepare meals on a daily basis. Food sales are recorded electronically, so no cash needs to change hands. Money is placed into an account for each student and deducted when the student buys items in the cafeteria.
Last year, two southwest suburban school districts in Tinley Park, served by Quest, agreed to try a similar solution. In 2012-13, Community Consolidated School District 146 in Tinley Park arranged a co-op agreement with Orland School District 135.
Like D95, Tinley Park had previously used a service that provided reheated frozen meals. According to Jeff Charleston, director of business services for District 146, the change was welcomed by students.
“Our numbers have gone up because the kids like the food better,” said Charleston. “It’s fresh and there’s a lot more variety. There’s a deli bar, like a mini-Subway, that’s really been a hit.”
There is also a salad bar and special events, such as a fruit and veggie fest, that introduce kids to food they may not have tried before.
“It’s been positive all the way around,” said Charleston, who added the districts are continuing the relationship this year.
The agreement states that D95 will purchase meals daily from District 208 at a cost of $3.10 per meal. D95 will sell the meals to students for $3.40, which also factors in the $30,000 investment the district made to purchase equipment such as mobile warming and cooling trays, foodservice personnel and free and reduced-price lunches provided by the district, which is reimbursed $2.40 for each free/reduced lunch provided.
In addition, that cost takes into account a 7 percent commission Quest will pay Riverside-Brookfield High School to cover wear and tear on the school’s kitchen equipment for producing the extra meals.
“We just wanted to make sure our service wasn’t impacted and that the wear and tear on our equipment was covered,” said RBHS Superintendent Kevin Skinkis. “If we can help out a feeder school district, it’s a win-win for everybody.”
The district isn’t expecting to save money with the switch. According to Kuzniewski, the district expects to spend about the same amount on its lunch program as it did last year. The difference in 2012-13 between what the district spent for lunches and revenue from students and government reimbursements meant that D95 spent about $65,000 on its lunch program last year, said Kuzniewski.
“I’d estimate the cost of running it through RB to be similar,” he said.
The district’s 2013-14 budget, which can be found on its website, predicts revenues of $206,000 from lunch fees and $262,000 in expenses related to foodservice, leaving a difference of $56,000.
“The benefit for us is we will have fresh food for our students on a daily basis,” said Kuzniewski. “In my mind, anything fresh is better for you in general.”