Sep 26, 2023 - News

CPS experiments with scratch cooking at more schools

Open-faced burger with lettuce, tomato, and onions on paper plate next to peach and small carton of milk.

Photo: Monica Eng/Axios

After decades of increasingly serving students more processed foods, CPS is experimenting with scratch cooking again.

Why it matters: A growing body of research suggests that eating highly processed foods can affect appetite, weight gain, nutrient absorption and chronic disease, the Washington Post reported this summer.

The big picture: Some countries already explicitly warn consumers to avoid processed foods.

  • Meanwhile, U.S. officials are researching the connections between ultra-processed food and health ahead of issuing the next batch of Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

What's happening: CPS is expanding its scratch cooking pilot — first started last year at Michele Clark High School on the West Side — to Westinghouse, South Shore, Little Village and Lane Tech High Schools.

What they're saying: "When I took over, I wanted to bring back more cooking from scratch," Jason Mojica, CPS' executive director of nutrition support services, told Axios during a recent visit to Little Village High School.

  • "You can't do it all at once, because you have to make sure you have the right equipment, staffing and training to do it properly."

On the menu: Juicy burgers, on soft, whole-grain enriched buns with real tomato, Romaine lettuce and caramelized onions. Plus, tilapia filets, baked chicken legs and hand-breaded chicken nuggets, tenders and patties, Mojica said.

The reaction: "This food is way way better than the stuff in elementary school," a student named Milton told Axios while standing in the cafeteria line. "They were always giving us nasty stuff like that pizza."

The intrigue: Until 2019, CPS prohibited schools from building cooking kitchens. Instead they built facilities designed to reheat processed foods.

  • Today, Mojica says, all new kitchens will be designed for cooking.

Yes, but: Heath and sustainability challenges persist in the district's food program. One of the most popular CPS breakfasts is the Benefit Bar that, along with a carton of flavored milk, delivers more added sugars than the American Heart Association recommends adults eat in an entire day.

What's next: After activating the cooking griddles at all of the pilot high schools, Mojica plans to install new ovens with conveyor belts that can crank out fresh pizzas and calzones.

What we're watching: Federal officials are expected to consider limiting sugar in school meals in the next round of school meal standards.

Man with beard and glasses in school lunchroom.
Jason Mojica, executive director of nutrition support services at CPS. Photo: Monica Eng/Axios

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