The smell of freshly baked, antibiotic-free chicken wafted for the first time through the halls of all 473 schools in the Chicago Public Schools system Tuesday.
Compared with the odorless, prepackaged chicken nuggets normally served, the new menu offering marks a major step in the campaign to improve lunchtime options for students throughout the country.
“No other major school district has ever before been able to cast such a huge and, we hope, influential vote in favor of safer and more sustainable use of antibiotics in livestock production,” said Laura Stanley, Learning Lab manager of New York-based School Food FOCUS.
School Food FOCUS, which works to make school meals across the country healthier, more sustainably produced and regionally sourced, implemented the menu change in collaboration with the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming, a Washington-based program aimed at curbing the overuse and misuse of antibiotics in food animal production.
According to the U.S Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is evidence of a link between the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in food animal production and increased antibiotic resistance in humans.
Laura Rogers, director of the Pew program, said that 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States are currently fed to farm animals. The majority of these antibiotics are given to healthy animals in order to make them grow faster, and to compensate for unsanitary and crowded living conditions.
“This has created a sea of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in our environment and our food supply – particularly in children, whose immune systems are still developing,” she said. “Antibiotics are on a limited timeline. Their effectiveness is whittling down.”
Though conventionally produced chicken is safe to eat, one way to reverse the resistance trend may be to limit consumption of antibiotic-raised poultry.
Over the coming year, Stanley said, more than half of the chicken meat that Chicago school children will be served – 1.2 million pounds of it – will now be raised holistically, making the Chicago Public Schools system the first in the nation to purchase and serve antibiotic-free chicken on such a large scale.
Antibiotic-free chicken costs a few cents more per pound – a difference that quickly adds up when you are feeding more than 300,000 students each day – said Bob Bloomer, the regional vice-president of Chicago schools’ primary food service provider, Chartwells-Thompson Hospitality. He added that the increased cost still fits within the school system’s budget and is also a price they are willing to pay for the benefit of the kids.
“School districts buy tremendous amounts of poultry every year,” CPS’s Rogers said. “And serving healthier chicken for hundreds of thousands of students is an ambitious goal. But if Chicago [Public Schools] can do it, anyone can do it.”
This latest step towards healthy meals proves that the purchase of antibiotic-free chicken can be mainstream and affordable, Rogers added.
The chicken comes from the Miller Amish Country Poultry of Orland, Ind. Galen Miller, president and owner of the farm, confirmed that all his birds are raised without the use of antibiotics or hormones and in accordance with humane treatment standards.
Unfortunately, at current capacity, Miller Poultry can only provide enough chicken to be served to students two to three times each month.
Rochelle Davis, the president and CEO of the Healthy Schools Campaign, said she hopes that as the antibiotic-free program moves forward, they can find additional antibiotic-free chickens.
“We’d be happy to serve more,” she said. “But there’s a rate limiting factor of procuring chicken. Right now, Chartwells has bought all there is to buy.”
Miller said, however, that if the project with Chicago schools proves to be successful, he envisions significant production growth within the next year to meet the growing demand.