Photos: Chicago Public Schools
Chicago Public Schools Nutrition Support Services Director Jason Mojica and Chicago Public Schools Nutrition Program Manager Justine Britten shared how the school district prioritizes student voice when crafting meals, among other topics, in a 45-minute interview with The Chicago Defender.
Nutrition Support Services is the department responsible for providing breakfast, lunch and after-school meals for more than 322,000 Chicago Public Schools students, according to its website.
Mojica, a graduate of what would become the Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Chicago, is now in his second year as NSS director. Britten has worked in her role for 18 months.
These are a few highlights of the interview, condensed for clarity and accuracy.
Chicago Defender: How have the food offerings evolved from the Brandon Johnson administration versus the Lori Lightfoot administration?
Mojica: Well, what I can tell you is between both administrations, we at CPS are always continually trying to improve our menus. Last year, we started an initiative to engage with our students, going to students and meeting with them directly. We engage students by conducting multiple tastings throughout the school year at different schools to solicit student input and feedback on all of the menu items.
And then, over the summer, Justine and the team worked with both of our vendors based on a lot of the student feedback on the menus going into this school year.
Britten: I’d say the biggest changes you may have seen wouldn’t necessarily be based on who’s in the Mayor’s office, but it’s been the changes due to our changing world around the pandemic.
Like Jason said, particularly over the last two school years, we’ve been on student voice and what students want to eat. So, collecting that info and turning that into tangible changes on the menu [See “Editorial Note” below for those changes].
Chicago Defender: How are parents being kept in the loop?
Mojica: A few ways, right? All of our menus and everything are posted on what we call Meal Viewer, that’s an online portal system where parents have access to all of our menus. They can look at nutritional information and all of these other things. We have a general food email inbox. We’re at cps.edu, where parents can ask whatever questions they would like as it relates to items on the menu.
When we have the ability, we do attend LSC [Local School Council] meetings where principals tell us if there are parent concerns or that they want to ask us questions. Some schools have parent advisory councils, where we will speak to parents, educate them on school food and answer any questions that they have.
We try to focus a lot of our efforts on students because they’re the ones who are eating the food. In the past, there were a lot of adults in the room that were making decisions for our students.
And at the end of the day, we want to shift that and ensure that we were engaging students and asking students about the food, what options, what they want to see, and everything. And so we’ve really directed our efforts to student engagement and feedback as it relates to the menu.
That is not to say that we exclude parents because we do engage with parents, but at the end of the day, our students are our primary customers. And so we want to make sure that we’re engaging with our customers.
Aloha Bowl and Beef Gyro – two limited-time offers that are featured on Fall menus for Aramark-managed schools (Photo Chicago Public Schools).
[EDITORIAL NOTE: CPS press secretary Evan Moore provided The Chicago Defender with the following statement regarding the student-centered meetings about menu selection for CPS-sponsored meals.]
In the school year 2022-23, we surveyed 9000 students, held 40 student tasting events, and numerous focus groups. Here are some of the menu changes we have made based on student input:
- Added student-requested breakfast items like cinnamon rolls, donuts, and a variety of smoothie flavors (all products meet rigorous K-12 Nutrition Guidelines)
- Included new, student-approved lunch items: flavored applesauce, turkey bacon, breakfast pizza, tamales, a buildable pizza kit, seasoned white rice
- Made recipe adjustments to mac and cheese to add more texture and flavor
- Incorporated Global flavors
- Investigated bringing back “Flavor Stations” (still in progress)
- Increased frequency of nachos, breakfast for lunch, juice, and popcorn chicken serves
Chicago Defender: Is CPS prepared to serve all students, including the influx of migrant students, throughout the school year?
Mojica: We are. No doubt. Regardless of how many students are coming in, we’re always ready to feed students. We have plenty of food to serve our students, so the more the merrier.
Chicago Defender: What is it like knowing the work that you’re doing is impacting the lives of young people every year, feeding them healthy, nutritious meals that reflect what they want to eat?
Mojica: Well, you know, it feels amazing, right? So, I’ve been in this industry for over 30 years, about 16 years in K-12 in different capacities. My children have graduated from CPS schools. I have grandchildren who attend CPS schools. So, it’s a very personal investment for me. This is absolutely passionate work for me. You know, I’m a chef by trade.
So, you know, school food is a very challenging division of food service, but I love the challenge. I have worked hard to surround myself with an amazing team that supports me and is very passionate about the work. I feel very good and very confident that we’re doing great things.
Britten: When you go into schools, and you see students eating the meals, and they’re having fun at lunch, and they’re enjoying a new product, or you get that feedback after a student tasting, I mean, that gives me goosebumps, right?
That’s the stuff that makes us feel really good, and we know that all of that sweat over how many times carrots are on the menu does really matter because, at our scale, it’s huge. It makes this huge ripple effect. And you know that you are having an influence on that student’s health today.
But in school food, what really gets us going is that we know we can have an impact on student’s health decisions over their lifetime, too, because you’re teaching students those healthy habits that you hope that it’s going to last them a lifetime.