Communities across Illinois celebrate new law to improve school lunches

Legislation awaits Governor Pritzker’s Signature

Illinois Stewardship Alliance, and a coalition of community organizations, schools, farmers and parents are celebrating the passage of new legislation to improve school lunches, increase equity for low-income and minority students, and create new opportunities for farm-to-school food options. 

The Better School Lunches Act HB4813, sponsored by House Representative Jehan Gordon-Booth and Senator Ram Villavalam removes antiquated bidding requirements for food service agency contracts and encourages schools to create contracts that use taxpayer dollars to prioritize the purchase of local, fair, healthy, humane, and sustainable foods from farms and businesses in Illinois. 

“The Better School Lunches Act represents an opportunity for farmers not only to greatly expand their market opportunities and grow their businesses, but to fulfill a mission,” says Jeff Hake, farmer at Funks Grove Heritage Fruits & Grains and founding member of FarmFED Cooperative. “Farms like ours are invested in feeding our communities and this legislation goes a long way to enabling us to feed our youngest generation the freshest, most nutritious food possible.”

Farmers Jeff Hake and his wife Katie (above) are excited about the opportunity to provide their local schools with products like their locally harvested maple syrup which is produced on their farm at Funks Grove near Shirley, IL.

Under the new regulations, schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) will no longer be required to accept the lowest price bid when contracting with a food service provider.

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) is a federal program that reimburses school districts for serving free and reduced lunches to qualifying students. The program enables many school districts across the nation to serve students a meal when the schools may not otherwise have the budget to do so.

Illinois school districts enrolled in the NSLP are required to select only the lowest-price bid when contracting with food service providers.  Illinois and New York are the only two states in the nation with this requirement.  Illinois school districts that participate in the NSLP have pointed to the current bid requirement limitations as the main reason for low food quality and low consumption rates by students. These school districts have also pointed towards inequality, noting that districts with high percentages of low income and minority students have less ability to improve their lunches because of the lowest bid requirement. 

The Better School Lunches Act not only removes the lowest-price bid requirement, but also encourages schools to create contracts that prioritize sourcing from local farms, prioritize businesses that use humane and sustainable practices, and prioritize sourcing from minority and women-owned businesses. 

Many other infrastructure pieces would have to fall into place before local sourcing could take hold in school cafeterias, but removing the lowest price bid requirement would eliminate the current and primary barrier for many schools. The last step to remove this barrier is approval and a signature from the Governor. 

The legislation was supported by a broad coalition of stakeholders, including the Chicago Food Policy Action Council, Chicago Public Schools, ED-RED, Greater Chicago Food Depository, Illinois Environmental Council, Illinois Heart Association, Illinois Stewardship Alliance, Illinois Association of School Boards, Illinois Principals Association, Indian Prairie School District 240, Large Unit District Association, Woodridge School District, West Aurora School District, Joliet School District 86, LEND and the FIP Action Fund, Healthy Schools Campaign, and Community Organizing and Family Issues.

The coalition is now urging Governor Pritzker to sign the bill into law to ensure that all students receive the nutrition needed to thrive and put the power to determine cafeteria standards back into the hands of school districts and the local communities they serve.

Celebrate this big victory with a gift today!  Your contribution empowers the Alliance to work with farmers to identify issues, put forward solutions, and mobilize eaters who power our campaigns.