Illinois suffers from the fourth-highest level of childhood obesity in the nation, with Chicago kids checking in heavier than the rest of the state. Yet, while many school districts are phasing out sweet treats, Chicago Public Schools officials continue to say, let them eat cake.
And it's not just cake that the district serves daily to most grade schoolers. It's also chocolate fudge pudding, Keebler Elf Grahams, vanilla creme cookies, double fudge cookies, lemon flavored creme cookies, Rice Krispies treats, pound cake, chocolate cookies with candy pieces and comfort cake with icing, according to school menus.Earlier this year, district officials told the Tribune that this daily dessert policy was "currently under evaluation." But even with the district in financial crisis, the Tribune has learned the district will continue to buy and serve the sweets to most of its 240,000 elementary school kids -- 80 percent of whom are on the free and reduced lunch program.
But it's more than the cost that prompted other districts to remove these items; it is a concern about healthy eating habits.
"The trend is to move to smaller portions if you serve these desserts at all and to try to use fruits instead," said Katie Wilson, a past president of the School Nutrition Association and the nutrition director for Onalaska Public Schools near LaCrosse, Wis. She said her district serves occasional desserts but they are mostly baked from scratch at its central bakery, "like an oatmeal cookie or sweet potato cookies or chocolate cake made from beets."
Sample menus from other large and low-income school districts in the Chicago area bear out Wilson's contention. Elgin's U-46 district offers daily fruit instead of packaged sweets. Joliet serves fruit or no dessert at all.
And in middle-class suburbia, Naperville District 203 officials present dessert only once a week, "but we make things like a yogurt parfait with fresh fruit that has a slower energy release," said General Manager Barbara Brown. She said the district banned packaged cakes a decade ago and insists on scratch baked a la carte items.
When Chicago lunch officials were asked about the practice in June, they offered mixed answers.
"It's a tough question," said Bob Bloomer, regional vice president of Chartwells-Thompson Hospitality, which has a multiyear contract through 2010 to cater the Chicago district's meals. "I always struggle with that. But in the end, I think it helps entice the kids to go through the lunch line and get lunch. And if that's what it takes...."
At the time, the district's food service director, Louise Esaian, called the packaged sweets "a historical practice and currently under evaluation."
Three months later, that evaluation seems to have resulted in no change. The sweets, Esaian said, are part of "our contractual arrangement" with Chartwells-Thompson that can't be modified until the contract is rebid at the end of this school year. She also noted that the sweets meet U.S. Department of Agriculture dietary requirements.
So how much do these millions of daily desserts cost Chicago taxpayers each year?
Esaian said she didn't know because the cost of the cookies and cakes was part of a "fixed rate" per meal -- about $1 -- paid to Chartwells. She referred the Tribune, instead, to Bloomer, who simply said: "I can't divulge that. It's proprietary information."
Wilson said that in her school district, she occasionally serves Rice Krispies treats and does view that as an enticement to children.
"Because we rely on federal reimbursements based on bringing customers into my cafeteria," she said. "So if that small treat gets a child to come through the line for a balanced meal, it could be worth it.
"Culturally, we need to make a difference in the way we eat, but school districts are under pressure to get the kids in line for lunch."
Brown, who oversees 11 Naperville schools, said that when her district went off the packaged sweets, "we didn't see participation [of kids getting lunch] drop off at all."
And, she said, the district is hoping to see learning improve as they move from foods that can spike sugar levels to options she calls "brain foods."
"We used to have desserts ... but last winter we changed our philosophy to focusing on 'brain foods' in preparation for the ISATs," Brown said. "We wanted to call attention to foods that offered a slow release of energy rather than concentrated sugars that can increase blood sugar and then make you crash, which we don't think assists with learning."
Chicago students are also offered fruit at lunch, but fruit doesn't always fare well against cakes and cookies.
Claudie Phillips, interim food service director for Elgin U-46 School District, the second largest in the state, said that it helps to eliminate the less healthy choices. Her district does not offer the packaged desserts.
"Sometimes you help them by not giving so many choices," she said. "We're currently going through all of our menus with a fine-tooth comb, trying to make all the choices healthy ones."
With rising levels of obesity and obesity-related disease in the U.S. and Congress debating changes to the federal school lunch program this fall, the call for healthier school lunches is growing louder.
The issue is especially pressing locally. Illinois was ranked by a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study released this year as having the fourth highest level of childhood obesity in the nation. And an Illinois Department of Public Health study found that the percentage of children in Chicago who are overweight was higher than the rest of the state.
Next week, Slow Food Chicago is staging an "eat-in" at Daley Plaza with celebrities and legislators to promote better lunches through the Child Nutrition Act, which is being reauthorized and potentially revamped this year in Congress.
And next month, "Renegade Lunch Lady" Ann Cooper is heading to Washington with Whole Foods co-President Walter Robb to gain support for healthier national lunches.
Cooper famously overhauled the lunch program in the Berkeley (Calif.) Unified School District and wrote "Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children." Today she's working to transform lunch in Colorado's Boulder Valley School District while, this month, launching a partnership with Whole Foods to offer all schools access to her recipes and lunch improvement resources. Cooper declined to discuss district practices but offered her philosophy.
"I don't sell or serve desserts because I don't think that's a good way to develop healthy eating habits," Cooper said. "We shouldn't be teaching children to have dessert every day at lunch in the first place. Most adults don't even eat dessert every day at lunch.
"But if you do serve dessert, I think an apple is perfect."