Next year, all elementary school students in Riverside Elementary School District 96 could have access to hot lunches, something only students at Central School and Hauser Junior High School have access to now.

With District 96 cafeteria manager Judy Steinke set to retire in June, district officials have been talking to Quest Food Management Services about hiring the company to provide hot lunches at all District 96 schools in 2023-24. 

Quest currently provides hot lunches at Riverside-Brookfield High School, Brookfield-LaGrange School District 95 and Komarek School District 94.

Hauser has the only kitchen among District 96 schools, which is why Central School, located right next door and connected to Hauser, has hot lunches now. 

If District 96 offers hot lunches next year, they will likely be prepared in the Hauser kitchen and then sent to all of the elementary schools. Quest prepares District 95 and Komarek hot lunches at RBHS.

At its Jan 18 meeting, the District 96 school board is expected to approve spending nearly $27,000 on a consulting contract with Quest to have the company look over its lunch facilities this spring and determine how a hot lunch program might work.

During the COVID-19 pandemic District 96, like other school districts, provided a free cold lunch to all students under a temporary federal program that ended at the start of the 2022-23 school year. 

Some parents got accustomed to the school providing lunch for their kids, and school board members say a number of parents have asked them about the school providing lunches again, including hot lunches. 

“Ever since [Superintendent] Martha [Ryan-Toye] sent the first and the second and the third reminder that this was going away because the federal government wasn’t reimbursing this, I have had a lot of feedback from people I’ve been talking to about wanting hot lunch at their school,” said District 96 school board member Wesley Muirheid at the Dec 21 school board meeting when the subject was discussed.

Hot lunches at Central and Hauser currently cost close to $4. Only about 25 to 30 percent of students at those schools purchase a hot lunch, which is prepared by District 96 staff.

Muirheid said that the district would probably gain revenue if it makes hot lunches available to all its students, because free lunches must be made available to those who qualify for the federal free and reduced lunch program. The federal government only reimburses the cost for a hot lunch. 

Those who don’t qualify for the free or reduced lunch program would still have to buy their lunch or bring one from home.

“It’s not a five-star meal but there are federal [nutritional] guidelines that you have to follow,” Muirheid said.

Although Quest would manage the hot lunch program, current cafeteria workers, other than Steinke, would keep their jobs, although their duties could change. A Quest employee would manage and supervise the preparation and distribution of the lunches. 

It is estimated that the new Quest employee would make about $60,000 plus taxes and benefits and Quest would also charge a $45,000 consulting fee.

Other school members were willing to explore offering hot lunches but did not make commitments to support offering hot lunches at all its schools.

“There’s no doubt we can do it, but it’s just a matter of can we afford it,” said school board member and finance committee chairman David Barsotti.