Food fight! Students threaten lunch strike at Niles West
Julian Arsen serves Niles North High School students food from District 219's lunch provider, OrganicLife, on Aug. 27, 2012. | Curtis Lehmkuhl~Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 8, 2013 6:13AM
Widespread hype that spread this week about a school-wide boycott of the organic-focused lunch program at Niles West High School conjured images of hungry teens holding signs marching in circles outside the school cafeteria, but school officials said nothing unusual has taken place during lunch periods so far.
A group of students Monday began calling for a boycott of cafeteria lunches purchased through District 219 lunch provider OrganicLife, an Illinois-based company that was hired in 2011 by the district to provide more healthful foods at a cheaper cost than the National School Lunch Program.
A group of students, complaining of lunches they claim are high-priced and meager-portioned, went viral with their concerns early this week and now have more than 1,600 “likes” on their “Lunch Strike” Facebook page where students have been posting photos of their school lunches.
Searching for “LunchStrike2013” on Twitter also brings up a slew of local comments, and a student petition aiming to get 1,000 signatures in favor of lower-priced school lunches has also appeared online. So far the petition has garnered about 150 signatures.
And while the onset of the strike called for students to protest OrganicLife’s lunches by brown-bagging their lunches all week, Niles West principal Kaine Osburn said there’s been no noticeable difference this week in lunchroom lines or in the number of students who appear to be eating school-made lunches.
“The word ‘strike’ has been used on Facebook, but we’ve had no overt behavior or protests related to one,” Osburn said, adding that the school doesn’t keep statistics on how many lunches are purchased each day.
Osburn said school officials were working with student government representatives to gather a comprehensive list of student complaints regarding the school-made food, and will present those concerns on behalf of the student body during a Feb. 13 meeting set up with OrganicLife to address the issue.
“We’re engaging this the way we should, and we’ll be there to listen to students’ concerns and respond appropriately,” Osburn said. “OrganicLife, or any food service provider the district uses, must meet the guidelines of what’s considered a healthy meal for students.”
He continued, “That’s the starting point for us — to make sure they’re meeting those guidelines and that they meet the basic reasonable nutritional needs of a teen.”
The negative reaction about school lunch this week is in sharp contrast to the scene at the beginning of the school year, when students seemed expressed excitement about the new healthy offerings. Student government reps from both Niles North and West reported positive feedback about lunch from their peers at a District 219 Board of Education meeting held last fall.
District 219 switched from the standard National School Lunch Program to OrganicLife last year as part of a sustainability strategy developed by the district that requires the food at both schools to be mostly cooked from scratch. The food is also prepared with more fresh and natural, locally-sourced-ingredients, including grass-fed beef, organic chicken and 100 percent juices.
The new menu offers hundreds of lunch options, including about 100 a la carte items priced less than $5, eight food stations offering different entrée platters for $4.95, and four choices of rotating green plate specials for $2.75.
The OrganicLife offerings are in compliance with nutritional standards set by the National School Lunch Program, and serving sizes meet or exceed those standards, according to District 219 spokesman Jim Szczepaniak, who added that the $2.75 cost for green plate specials is the lowest lunch cost among neighboring schools, which typically charge $3 to $3.75 for similar daily plate specials.
It’s difficult, however, to determine whether students are paying more for lunch since OrganicLife signed on with District 219, because the National School Lunch Program did not share sales information with district officials, Szczepaniak said.
“I can say that a far higher percentage of students choose to buy their lunch from OrganicLife,” Szczepaniak said. “With the previous provider, about 2 out of 3 students got their food from the provider and with OrganicLife, based on the numbers we’ve seen, about 9 out of 10 students choose to get their food from OrganicLife.”
Statistics aside, students aren’t being shy about sharing their thoughts about current school lunch offerings. Organic or not, it seems quantity and value are most important when it comes to lunchtime chow.
A large group of students posted complaints on the Facebook page today about their classmates continuing to buy lunch amidst the “strike,” and one Niles West student, Sara Rose Kelly, gave a truthful response.
“Sorry. I just like meatball subs,” she wrote.
No word yet on any protests at Niles North.