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Feeding the children

In the nation’s poorest big city, the District’s Division of Food Services is a bulwark against hunger.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

It’s a huge undertaking.

Every day, the Philadelphia School District’s Division of Food Services dispenses, on average, 88,000 lunches and more than 55,000 breakfasts to schoolchildren.

Last school year, that added up to a staggering 15,694,437 lunches and 9,878,282 breakfasts. About 5,000 additional meals daily went to afterschool programs, and more than 10,000 a day went to District summer programs.

All meals are free to all students. The Food Services budget of $89.3 million is separate from the main District spending plan. U.S. Department of Agriculture funding makes up more than 90 percent, and almost all of the rest comes from the state. A small amount comes from vending machine and snack sales.

Meals are served at 238 schools, including a handful of charters and private schools that contract with the District. At 107 sites, food is cooked in a full-service kitchen; at the rest, it’s prepared off-site. There are 265 sites in all – some schools have annexes that also serve food.

All that with a staff of 862, plus 15 central office staff. Many of those are part-time employees.

“We’re a very lean operation,” said Wayne Grasela, the District’s senior vice president for food services.

The Division of Food Services often does not get the attention that many other aspects of school life receive. But it should, said Mary Summers, a University of Pennsylvania professor who has studied food issues in the city. After all, she said, Philadelphia is the “poorest big city and one of the hungriest school districts” in the country.

A “significant number of kids are not getting adequate, regular food,” Summers said. That has a big impact on their success in school and in life.

The Division of Food Services, Summers said, has made a difference to many of those children, often taking the lead in crafting programs that have served as models nationwide. Although it still faces many challenges, she said, particularly in increasing breakfast participation, the staff is a “smart, savvy, committed group that is headed in the right direction.”

That direction has been profoundly shaped in recent years by changes in national nutrition policy.

In 2010, Congress passed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, the first major upgrade to national nutrition standards in decades, after much prodding, particularly by Michelle Obama.

It had new requirements for more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, limits on fat, sugar, and sodium, and curbs on total calories.

The Food Services Division made the transition fairly smoothly, thanks largely to partnerships with outside nutrition groups like Temple University’s Center for Obesity Research and Education, said Amy Virus, who had worked at Temple and is now the Food Services manager of administrative and support services.

Some districts complained about the added cost of the 2010 law, while the USDA added only six cents in reimbursement for lunches and nothing for breakfast. The reimbursement is $1.99 for a breakfast and $3.15 for a lunch, a rate that has not changed since the new law came into effect.

About half – 51 percent – of the Food Services budget is spent on food and supplies, 46 percent on labor and 3 percent on contractors.

Other critics said that the new nutrition requirements made some food unpalatable and that students were throwing it away instead of eating more healthfully.

But several recent studies show that the law improved nutrition outcomes, said Deb Bentzel, a consultant on farm-to-school programs with the Food Trust, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that partners with other organizations in a national network focused on food availability and nutrition issues.

The 2010 law was due for reauthorization by September 2015, but Congress has not acted so far. A bipartisan Senate bill introduced in January 2016 would preserve most of it, slowing down the timetable for sodium reduction and tweaking the percentage of grain-based foods that would have to contain at least 51 percent whole grain. No votes have been held in either the Senate or House.

Grasela and Virus support the 2010 law and would like to see its main elements preserved.

“We’re serving more fruits and vegetables – we have more variety than we ever had before,” said Virus.

Free lunch for all

Another provision in the 2010 bill allowed all students, regardless of income, to get free lunches in districts where the poverty rate was very high. In the fall of 2014, Philadelphia became one of the earliest districts to adopt free universal meals, eliminating the need for qualifying paperwork showing family income.

The District was already providing free breakfast in every school. And many schools already had universal free lunch under earlier regulations. But the change allowed 85 additional schools to join their ranks.

Because of recent changes in public school population, it is difficult to say how many more students got free lunches after the switch. But in general, Grasela said, “as the kids grew older they would not take the paperwork [to sign up for free meals] home. …There had been a stigma – now everybody’s equal; everybody eats.”

Increasing access to healthier food is only the beginning of their mission, Virus and Grasela said. The ongoing battle is to serve food that appeals to student tastes while staying within the nutrition guidelines.

That’s particularly difficult because in more than half of school buildings, there is no kitchen; the schools were built without them, or they were converted to other uses. Instead, food arrives in pre-packaged form.

There is widespread agreement that students complain about and more often dislike the food in schools with “satellite kitchens.” Starting in about 2010, Food Services eliminated more than two dozen elementary and middle school full-service kitchens as a cost-saving measure, because its labor agreement at the time was leading to deficits, Grasela said.

Since then, he said, under a new agreement, the closed kitchens have been restored in all the elementary schools and middle schools that remain in operation and new ones have been added in other schools. In all, 45 full-service kitchens have been opened in the last four years, with 10 to 13 more planned for future years, as budgets allow.

Customer feedback

Improving food palatability and quality is a never-ending challenge, Virus said. The first few years after 2010 were a scramble just to find suppliers that had the right food, to redo menus, and to train the staff to make sure all meals met the new standards, she said.

But “now, we’re at a point where we are tweaking more foods and getting to the point where we are serving our students more of what they like.”

For example, she said, beans are required at least once a week. “They are not the most popular item – we’re still trying to figure out, three years later, how to make them more acceptable. We’re serving them in a variety of ways to find out what works best.”

And in general, “we are introducing new menu items each month to try to find a flavor profile that fits for the students,” Virus said. “It is part of our routine now – ours and the students.’” Some students are trained as taste-testers, to give feedback on new offerings, she said.

To find out more in depth what students like and don’t like, Food Services conducted an extensive online food survey last year, with more than 11,000 students participating. “It doesn’t just say ‘Do you like this or don’t like that,’ Grasela said. “It breaks down the whole cafeteria experience and … asks what things could happen in order to get them to participate in it.”

One thing many students said: They did not know what was on the menu for a given day. Food Services enhanced the online menu and now tweets it, Virus said.

In 2014-15, before it rebid its contract for the prepackaged food that goes to the sites without full kitchens, Food Services held an extensive consulting process with nutrition advocates, students, parents, and others to reach a consensus on what the bid specifications should be.

The result, Grasela said: “We significantly enhanced the nutritional value of the meal – more fresh foods and vegetables, entree salads, more yogurts.”

And, Virus said, because the division is more financially viable, it is demanding lower fat and sodium content in the meat it is buying, at a slightly higher cost.

Food Services also has several initiatives that bring locally grown food into the schools. By this fall, Virus said, there will be a locally grown “harvest-of-the-month” offering in all District schools, due to bidding changes that mandate more food from area producers.

Student wellness at stake

Anna Okropiridze, a Northeast High School junior, understands that eating right is vital for students and that schools play a huge role in feeding them.

“Improving school food and having more healthy options is so important,” said Okropiridze, co-president of the school’s Wellness Club, which offers students alternate breakfasts.

Although she often brings her lunch to school, she said, some of her peers are not so lucky. Many of them “might not have parents at home and regular access to food,” she said. “Think about what they are going through.” If they don’t have good options in school, she said, “we know they won’t participate, function, or be excited about school.”

Bentzel, of the Food Trust, said the effort to increase the nutritional value of meals, to get students eating foods they may not be familiar with, and to put local produce on students’ breakfast and lunch trays may be a long, difficult and sometimes frustrating process for both administrators and students, but it will pay off in a big way down the road.

“It takes a long time to change behavior, for attitudes and preferences to change,” she said. “When you think about the importance of this to a kindergartner or 1st grader, their diet is going to be so much better by the time they leave school, and they will understand much more about what a meal should look like and how to feed themselves properly.”

Fabiola Cineas contributed reporting.

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