On a frigid February day last year, Michele Hays filed into Evanston Township High School with other concerned parents to talk with district administrators about school lunches.
One specific target of the parents' ire was a cafeteria meal called "Brunch for Lunch." As luck would have it, administrators brought a sample of the meal with them.
"When I actually saw it, it was so much worse than I thought it would be," she remembered.
"So I got up at the meeting and said, 'You may be meeting all the guidelines ... but I think it is unconscionable that you are serving pancakes, a tub of maple-flavored high-fructose corn syrup and a side of cookies for lunch.'"
Even for parents in relatively small suburban school districts, such as those in Evanston, the school food system can seem too big to change. Despite Hays' unusually open access to administrators and legislators, her yearlong effort to cut back on the weekly "Brunch for Lunch" offering in Evanston's elementary schools has failed so far.
But a Tribune examination of school food in Illinois' 10 largest districts found small positive changes are possible. Several districts serve only fruit for dessert four days of the week; some restrict nachos entrees to once a week; one has done away with breakfast Pop-Tarts; and some offer daily cold bars full of sliced fruits and vegetables.
Many of these changes have come at the prompting of health-conscious parents, the first generation to spend billions on natural and organic foods for their children. Hays recently persuaded Evanston- Skokie School District 65 to post pictures and nutrition labels for school meals online.
But substantial obstacles to change remain. Most parents, administrators and legislators agree that the national lunch program is underfunded, forcing providers to serve cheap, often low-quality, foods. The system is also structured to let children's preferences dictate the menu because if kids don't take the lunches, the food providers get less money. Those things probably won't change until Congress shapes the new rules for the Child Nutrition Act in the next few months.
At the meeting Hays attended, school food service directors showed a slide show on the mechanics of the National School Lunch Program, which involves an array of government agencies, funding structures and rules. It left them feeling "like this is so much bigger and confusing than we could have imagined," Hays said.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., recently visited her granddaughter's Evanston school to learn about the situation on the ground so she can help shape federal policy when Congress debates the nutrition act.
"It feels to me like there is a movement across the country with parents more concerned about school lunches," she said. "But it's not reflected on a federal policy level as far as I can see."
On her visit, Schakowsky participated in a passionate discussion that reflected concerns reaching beyond the Evanston schools.
One of the most contentious topics at the meeting, which Hays also attended, dealt with the most effective ways for parents to make their voices heard.
She asked what might happen if parents organized a boycott of objectionable meals and, for example, sent all their kids to school with a sack lunch on the day "Brunch for Lunch" was served.
After a long silence, nutrition services director Meghan Gibbons said a boycott would be financially damaging. Gibbons oversees the District 202 kitchen at Evanston Township High School, which also produces the meals for District 65's elementary schools.
The brunch lunch is the schools' most popular, and any sudden drop in sales would mean smaller reimbursements from the federal government. Gibbons suggested that parents discuss objectionable lunches with the food service provider.
"If there is something on the menu ... that our parents don't like, we can look at it," said District 65 Superintendent Hardy Murphy, prompting Hays to note that she already has protested the brunch lunch for some time.
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The mother of a third-grader, Hays said she packs a lunch most days but sends her son with lunch money when the district is serving "meals like bean burritos that we want to support."
Both Gibbons and District 65 food service director Christine Frole say they are frustrated with the paltry sum -- roughly $1 -- they can spend on food for each lunch.
As Congress prepares to discuss the Child Nutrition Act, President Barack Obama has asked for an additional $1 billion in funding for school lunches, which would mean about 30 cents more per lunch. Other observers are lobbying for money to fund a $1 increase.
Money aside, Hays thinks it's a mistake to let children wield so much power over the menu. District food directors won't even consider dishes that score lower than 80 percent approval ratings from student tasting panels.
Gibbons countered that she must please many different constituencies. "We have some parents who are particularly interested in reducing sugar. Some particularly interested in whole grains. Some who are particularly interested in reducing high-fructose corn syrup. Then we have federal and state requirements, so in order to appease all groups ..."
"It's not just appeasing but rather following an empirical health standard," Schakowsky interjected. "Also I think kids can learn to like healthier things. Their preferences are not static. ... One of the goals we have as a nation is to change and improve their eating habits."
Echoing the concerns of many health advocates and parents, Hays said: "I'm afraid that if we are not educating their palates now -- rather than reinforcing their unhealthy preferences -- we are educating them to make bad decisions."
When Hays suggested that hummus might offer a popular, inexpensive and protein-rich way to feed the students, Gibbons replied that many of the kids were not familiar with the chickpea dip, that tahini (sesame seed paste, an ingredient in the dish) costs too much, and the serving size would need to be very large to meet protein requirements set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Still, hummus and fresh vegetables are served daily as a side dish at Naperville Central High School, showing it could be used as a healthful accompaniment to meals if not the students' entire protein serving.
Schakowsky acknowledged that changing kids' tastes "is a lot to ask of a school system. And [meals served today] sound much better than they used to be."
One of the central obstacles to serving healthy food is the fact that the system discourages experimentation. Any drop in lunch participation results in financial penalties for the caterer.
When it was suggested that the new lunch rules could reduce that risk -- perhaps by guaranteeing a minimum reimbursement that could keep districts afloat while they try healthier options -- Gibbons said, "I think that sounds wonderful. Now will Uncle Sam go for it?"
To that Schakowsky replied, "Well, I think getting kids to try new things is going to take some sort of creative strategy."
After the meeting, Hays said she was impressed with her tour of the King Lab Magnet School's lunchroom, which serves more fresh produce and less lunch brunch than the rest of the district. Still, she suspected that even this high-level meeting may have minimal impact on the juggernaut that is the National School Lunch Program.
"One thing that I think is important for parents to remember is that there are limits to how much school lunch can change," Hays said. "It will never be all organic; there will never be all fresh cooked foods. But hopefully we will get that extra dollar per lunch."