This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Thanks to an engaging school lunch program, some Philadelphia students can say goodbye to long lunch lines and dreary cafeteria tables that leave some feeling left out and isolated.
Called Eatiquette, the program is an initiative of the Vetri Foundation that provides healthy meals and seeks to bring rowdy school cafeteria culture closer to something that resembles fine dining.
The traditional school cafeteria is reimagined with family-style meals made from scratch and served on real plates and silverware by their own peers as a lesson in respect. Rather than long rectangular tables, small round ones encourage conversations different from those typically heard roaring from the lunchroom.
“When we bring our program in, it really transforms the way the school thinks about what happens for that 30 minutes in the lunchroom,” said Kelly Herrenkohl, executive director of the Vetri Foundation.
The foundation, which has partnered with 10 Pennsylvania schools and two summer camps, has served more than 430,000 healthy meals since it was founded in 2012.
More than 1,300 Philadelphia District students are now participating in the program through partnerships that the foundation has with Julia DeBurgos and William Ziegler Elementaries. At three Philadelphia charter schools, more than 2,100 students are served by the program.
“I think that lunch traditionally has not really been focused on as part of the educational day, and I think, honestly, that’s true both in charters and in neighborhood schools,” said Herrenkohl.
The Vetri Foundation recently received a $40,000 grant from the Philadelphia Foundation to study the effects of Eatiquette at its two newest partner schools: Julia DeBurgos and Memphis Street Academy Charter School in North Philadelphia.
The Public Health Management Corp. (PHMC) will collect data on attendance, classroom behavior, and academic achievement at each of the schools. A report on the program’s performance will be released in September 2016.
Herrenkohl said the report will support the foundation’s goal of arming “wellness champions” with concrete data to validate the positive reviews that Eatiquette has received from existing partner schools.
“One of the things that we hear very consistently is that the Eatiquette program improves school culture, because the kids really feel proud to have this kind of program in their schools,” Herrenkohl said.
“They love that the teachers are involved in the lunchroom, that they get to engage with the school adults in a different way than they normally would in the classroom. We’ve actually heard that attendance goes up.”
Paul Spina, principal at Ziegler Elementary in Northeast Philadelphia, said that he has seen the positive impact that Eatiquette has had on his students since the partnership began in 2013.
“On Thursdays, days that Vetri is served, we have the highest attendance for students for the week, and the adults,” Spina said.
Though a Vetri meal is only served one day a week at Ziegler (at other schools the number varies), Spina said the culture of the school has been permanently changed.
“It’s not a lunchroom where kids are hollering across the table. It changed the whole culture of the school in that way,” Spina said. “The kids now are used to sitting at tables and having conversations. It changed the whole dynamic of their interactions. They almost become a family.”
Spina said the structured meal is something that many of his students do not experience. Students don’t just eat, they dine, he said.
This experience, Herrenkohl said, helps students gain an understanding of how healthy food makes them feel. They also learn respectful interaction with peers.
The Vetri Foundation believes PHMC’s study of the program will expand Eatiquette’s outreach and inspire a culture of pride in the lunchroom.
“It’s clear, there’s a lot of work that goes into serving this kind of food in this kind of environment,” Herrenkohl said.
“I think the kids really appreciate the fact that people have made a big effort for them. I think that just translates into them feeling proud of their school and proud of being part of it.”
Brianna Spause is an intern at the Notebook.