Budget & Finance

Chicago Schools Serving Chicken Raised Without Antibiotics

By Nirvi Shah — November 01, 2011 2 min read
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For the first time in perhaps decades, Chicago public school students are eating roasted chicken cooked from scratch at school.

But the chicken on lunch trays today is special for reasons beyond the fact that it’s not in the form of nuggets or patties: It was raised without the use of antibiotics.

“No other district in the country is serving this kind of poultry regularly,” said Bob Bloomer, a regional vice president with Chartwells-Thompson Hospitality, which provides meals at 473 schools in Chicago (about two-thirds of the district’s schools). He was speaking during a conference call with reporters today.

In recent years, the Food and Drug Administration has been working on reducing the use of antibiotics in all livestock because their use has led to antibiotic-resistant infections in humans.

In Chicago, the switch is coupled with the district’s push to serve bone-in chicken in addition to prepared chicken nuggets and patties, Mr. Bloomer said.

The district is the third-largest in the country, and the switch represents a major victory for groups that oppose the use and overuse of antibiotics in food production.

“This is unprecedented in scale,” said Laura Stanley, the Learning Lab Manager of School Food FOCUS, which advises large school districts on reforming what foods they buy. The organization outlined how the Chicago plan came about on its website.

“Children in particular are vulnerable to antibiotic-resistant infections,” said Laura Rogers, director of the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming, which works specifically on reducing the use and overuse of antibiotics in food production.

Serving bone-in chicken—drumsticks in this case—the district can cut the amount of sodium in meals. Proposed regulations for school meals from the U.S. Department of Agriculture require reducing sodium, among other changes.

Products such as meat and poultry grown without antibiotics are viewed as a niche or a specialty product, but in fact “this kind of purchase is mainstream and affordable,” she said.

Although the chicken raised without antibiotics will cost a few pennies more per serving, an amount that means a lot in a large school system, Mr. Bloomer said. But the cost was worth it: The chicken raised without antibiotics represents about a quarter of the 4.2 million pounds of chicken Chicago buys each year, Mr. Bloomer said.

Chicago’s antibiotic-free chicken comes from a small farm in Indiana, Miller Amish Country Poultry. Company president Galen Miller said the farm, which also supplies chicken to the restaurant chain Chipotle and grocery chain Whole Foods, produces just 1 percent of the amount of chicken produced by industry giant Tyson.

That was part of the challenge for Chicago, Ms. Stanley said. While the production of poultry without antibiotics is growing, “demand still outstrips supply. We expect over time this is going to change, especially, as projects like this one become known in the industry.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.