Three Key Advantages of Illinois’ New School Nutrition Program Policy

WRITTEN BY: Aramark Student Nutrition

What Does New Legislation Mean for Your School District?

Recognizing a need to serve K-12 students healthier meals and food they would actually eat, the Illinois legislature enacted new legislation reforming the process for soliciting school nutrition program contracts.

With these reforms in place, districts are no longer obligated to accept the lowest bids when choosing a school nutrition management partner.

Previously in Illinois, school districts participating in the USDA’s National School Lunch Program were bound to choose bids based on the lowest cost that meets minimum requirements. With the new legislation, Illinois school districts now have the option to issue requests for proposals, allowing them to weigh potential partners according to a comprehensive range of criteria. This shift opens a world of opportunity for school districts throughout Illinois.

Seizing New Opportunities in School Nutrition Services

How can Illinois school districts benefit from a Request for Proposals (RFP), as opposed to a low-bid, option? Here’s a brief list:

  • Partner with specialty service providers
  • Benefit from competitive proposals that exceed a district’s specified requirements
  • Ability to negotiate for higher quality services and products
  • Create stakeholder satisfaction and buy-in with their partner selection through an inclusive process
  • Use marginal cost increases to drive investment that raises satisfaction and has a clear ROI

Districts that choose an RFP approach and process must give good faith preference to the following:

  • Procure food that promotes the health and wellbeing of students, in compliance with USDA nutrition standards for school meals
  • Promote the production of scratch-made, minimally processed foods
  • Give preference to state or regional suppliers that source local food products
  • Give preference to food suppliers that use producers that adopt hormone and pest management practices recommended by the USDA
  • Give preference to food suppliers that value animal welfare
  • Increase opportunities for businesses owned and operated by minorities, women or persons with disabilities.

3 Opportunities with the New Contracting Policy

Here are three distinct opportunities this new policy gives school districts:

Request Customized Proposals

An RFP-based approach allows districts to request customized proposals from foodservice management companies. This encourages respondents to develop and suggest different approaches based on the areas of priority the district identifies in the RFP beyond minimum requirements. As a result, districts may find that proposals include solutions they had not previously considered and companies are encouraged to compete on quality in addition to cost.

The result? Every district can conceivably get every bidder’s best and most creative proposal for review.

Preferencing Proposals That Go Above Minimum Requirements

The new RFP option takes what was a flattened approach and gives it three dimensions, considering both cost and quality to evaluate the overall value. Instead of evaluating bids on a pass-fail basis, districts can now assign points to different criteria. This allows reviewers to score proposals higher if they go above the minimum requirements articulated in the request for proposals. While districts must still score proposals on cost, they can consider points in other criteria to determine their final partnership decision. This allows districts the ability to reinvent what in-school dining can be for their students, giving focus beyond the bottom line and USDA requirements.

Consider this scenario: a school district issues an RFP for a fixed meal rate contract that includes a scoring category for innovation. In the RFP, the district includes a minimum percentage for locally produced food and notes their goal to increase the use of fresh, local foods in student menus.

Company A’s proposal meets the minimum requirement for local sourcing but doesn’t go any further. Company B has a demonstrated track record with their partner districts of providing a higher percentage of local foods than the requirement, and they also propose a dedicated chef who will lead educational programs, including teaching kids about different kinds of local produce. Company B’s proposed price per meal is higher than Company A, but not by much – just a few cents. And other districts that Company B partners with have seen significant meal participation increases because kids are excited about fresh, local foods.

Through the RFP scoring, while Company B may score slightly lower on cost, the district can score them higher on innovation. And the district also scores them higher on their involvement of students, staff & patrons scoring section to reflect the chef-led programs, and in promotion of the school food program as they can expect meal participation to increase as a result of how Company B has promised to promote the menu enhancements. Ultimately the district chooses to partner with Company B and ends up with better overall results in not just quality and student and parent satisfaction, but also finances as meals and reimbursements increase.

Nuanced, Committee-Based Decision Making

Naturally, in a system that awards contracts to the lowest bidder meeting a static checklist of minimum requirements like the “Invitation for Bid” process, discussion over the selection process isn’t required. Within the new RFP framework, school districts can task committees to review proposals before deciding.

While some districts may be wary about adding a step to the process, the result is a thoughtful, nuanced review that involves multiple stakeholders. Districts can create review committees that include administrators, principals, staff, teachers, parents, even students. Different stakeholders can evaluate proposals through their unique perspectives and areas of expertise, such as wellness staff reviewing proposed menus and dietitian-led wellness education. Additionally, the transparency can create buy-in and satisfaction with the district’s final decision on a school nutrition partner.

Let’s talk about your school district’s nutrition services situation, your needs, goals and priorities and see if we can develop a solution to help you meet them. Contact Aramark Student Nutrition today.