St. Rita Raises bar for school food

By Seth Schwartz, Chicago Sun-Times from October 31, 2007

The Rev. Tom McCarthy is bent on giving the students at St. Rita High School the best.

While the 102-year-old institution offers young men from the South Side and suburbs of Chicago exceptional academics and athletic teams, McCarthy, the school's president, thought a main ingredient was missing -- a quality food program that wasn't filled with the standard frozen and canned products.

This fall, the school partnered with Country House, a family- owned restaurant in Alsip that also runs the lunch program at Morgan Park Academy. Now, the boys at St. Rita salivate at the thought of breakfast and lunch, cooked fresh daily.

"It's like having a restaurant in the school," McCarthy said. "We're not in the food business, we're in education. To bring in someone that handles everything for us, with the emphasis on healthy eating, has been a major plus for the school and kids in so many ways."

Brothers Paul and Dave Boundas, owners of Country House, are at the school regularly to monitor the menu and make necessary changes. Their cousin, John Bakalis, runs the operation at Morgan Park Academy.

Bill Adams, headmaster of Morgan Park, brought in the restaurant four years ago.

"Nobody said you can't offer brussel sprouts," Adams said. "We wanted to create a balance between foods that kids like and things that are healthy. I think the menu has gotten better over the years."

Word about what's on the plate travels quickly. One day, the third-grade class at Morgan Park pranced in yelling, 'We love chicken fried rice!' " according to Paul Boundas.

"Before, everything was canned or frozen food. There was no concern for health," Adams said. "Now it's all fresh and prepared here. Ninety percent of our kids are participating in the lunch program and it's affordable for everyone. It's $700 for the whole year, or if they want they can purchase it daily, weekly or monthly."

At St. Rita, the ample menu has given the student body an energy boost and helped foster relationships, staff say. Gone are the long, uninviting tables with benches. They've been replaced with round tables that seat nine.

A staff of nine prepares the meals fresh daily. For lunch there are two entrees, three salads and two soups to choose from, along with pizza, sandwiches, and desserts. An entree, soup and desert cost $3.50.

Those who went without breakfast now are regulars, and they feel the difference in the classroom.

Offensive tackle and heavy-weight wrestler Kevin Gallaher had been bypassing the morning meal. But the eggs, hash browns, sausage and blueberry pancakes were too enticing for the 6-foot 5-inch, 315-pound senior. Gallaher says the food doesn't just taste great, it has improved his study focus.

"I have a lot more endurance," Gallaher said. "it's nice to be able to choose what salad you want and the lunch specials have been great every day. A lot of guys just don't have time [at home] for breakfast, but here you can grab something before class. The food is too good to be true. With the chairs, it's now more comfortable and you can talk to everyone."

After school, students relax and play football, Ping-Pong and air hockey in a school lounge called Kitty's Cafe. They can replenish from the the lunch menu at half price. most football players make a habit of stopping in before heading home. It's rare if any food is left.

"Guys are usually starving after practice and the food costs almost nothing," Gallaher said. "It's great to be able to get a burger or a pasta plate right then. The soup and salad will come in handy during wrestling season."

Country House also will cater the school's mother-son dance in October and the alumni banquet in April.

McCarthy sees the advantages. "Food ends up being a bond," MCarthy said. "You have a freshman who might never be talking with a senior and here they're interacting. It's a wonderful way to build a sense of community.

Seth Schwartz is a Chicago freelance writer.