Education, Local News

Rising food costs make Flossmoor school board members question future kitchens

Skyrocketing food costs mixed with confined kitchen space is igniting in-depth conversations for Flossmoor School District 161 board members.

Associate Superintendent Fran LaBella told the board at its Jan. 23 meeting that the cost of pre-plated meals for elementary school students has “increased dramatically,” and soon could exceed the reimbursement amount the district receives from the National School Lunch Program.

This sample menu shows the meals that Flossmoor elementary school students would be provided if the district switches to an all-

“That means we’d be subsidizing what is a lackluster meal to begin with,” LaBella said.

None of the district’s three elementary schools has a full kitchen, but rather a small space used for daily food storage. The schools receive hot plated meals delivered every morning by Open Kitchens, a vendor used by the company Taher, with whom the district has a food service contract. The meals are placed into warming ovens until they’re served to students.


In the face of rising prices, LaBella boiled down the board’s decision to three options:

Option 1: Stay in the same agreement with Taher, and hope costs don’t increase too much. LaBella calls this option “risky, but not off the table.”

Option 2: Work directly with Open Kitchens, cutting out Taher, a plan that involves two obstacles. First, the district would have to buy warming ovens, since Taher currently owns the ones used at its schools. Taher also provides staff to distribute the lunches, so the district would have to see if Open Kitchens would be willing to do this instead.

Option 3: Use the kitchen at Parker Junior High, which currently serves hot meals to its students, as a pass-through for all district lunches. This would streamline costs, but also mean the elementary schools would switch over completely to cold lunches, which would be transported to their buildings from Parker. This option requires the purchase of a $58,000 cooler to hold the lunches, LaBella said, along with HVAC and other renovation services to install it.

In a later interview, LaBella said the board decided to maintain the status quo, continuing its current contract with Taher. While they ultimately decided not to change course, the issue prompted board members to engage in a lengthy conversation about the district’s food service situation.

Board member Cameron Nelson asked about bringing food service in-house instead of using a vendor. That idea isn’t practical, LaBella said, as it would require an area for food prep, as well as warming wells and adjacent space to serve students. 

“Our schools don’t have kitchens, they have closets,” LaBella said.

If such renovations were even possible, they would be costly, said Superintendent Dana Smith, and paying for them would almost certainly mean diverting money from other priorities.

Board member Michael Rouse said he believes a long-range conversation about food service is necessary, considering the major changes and spending increases likely in the district’s future.

“Obviously we have things that are immediate needs, but in the context of that, we have to consider these kitchens long-term,” Rouse said. “Every decision has other consequences along with it. I think we need to have long-range conversations again because there’s new information coming to the table.”

Board member Christina Vlietstra vocalized distaste for the idea of a cold-only lunch for elementary school kids. A sample menu provided by the vendor includes deli sandwiches, wraps, a yogurt pack, and beefy nachos. Each day also includes a vegetable, fruit, milk, and a cold side such as black bean salad, coleslaw and potato salad.

“I don’t think it’s fair for students at Parker to get a hot lunch and other students get some cold sandwich,” Vliestra said.

Board member Janelle Scharon questioned the academic value of having a hot meal for lunch, and whether student learning improves as a result. For that reason, she was drawn to the conversation about creating new kitchen space.

“There’s always interest in what you could do, if we found out the cost was affordable, and we could dip into our reserve,” Scharon said. “It’s food for kids, and that’s probably why I’m on the fence here.”

Nelson said he was skeptical of putting money toward building renovations for new kitchen space, though he would support asking the district’s building engineering firm for a proposal if other board members wanted it.

“I don’t believe hot lunch has anything to do with student performance,” Nelson said. “I think we’d be investing a lot in something that won’t make much difference. I never had hot lunch as a kid, and I turned out just fine.” 

Board members called on the principals at the meeting, asking them whether students enjoy having hot lunch. They agreed the kids like the meals, especially the younger ones. 

“They like having things they never had before, like potstickers,” said one of the principals. “The little ones eat it up, especially, because they’re not as picky. For some of them, it’s the only hot meal they get throughout the day.”

News by email

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.

Free weekly newsletter

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.
Most read stories this week