This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Lunch is more than an hour away, but Daniel Moll, Luis Arbelo and Joshua Shaw – all seniors at the Philadelphia Military Academy (PMA) in North Philadelphia – already know they’re in for a treat, and a healthy one at that.
This particular day’s menu features “Breakfast or Lunch,” a mashup in which students can choose either French toast sticks and sausage links or a bagel stuffed with scrambled eggs and sausage patty. That’s the breakfast side of the meal plan. There are other choices – pizza slice, or a salad, or a hoagie. The sides include tater tots, fruit, juice, and milk.
School food is often maligned, but the guys all like the day’s menu and most other days’ offerings as well.
“The food tastes like it’s just been cooked,” said Moll, 18. A big favorite, he said, is a spicy chicken and rice dish, served with an egg roll. There’s big demand for that one, the teens agreed.
“They definitely give us a choice,” said Arbelo, 17.
“You get that balanced type of meal,” said Shaw, also 17.
Inadvertently or not, the students had hit upon the basic formula for a successful school meal: tasty food, a choice of items offered as fresh as possible, and a balance of grains, fruit, vegetables, and protein. It’s a formula that has changed significantly in recent years to emphasize healthy food choices and limit or eliminate sugary, fatty foods from menus.
The French toast sticks – and all other breads, muffins, pancakes and the like – are made using whole-wheat flour. The milk is lowfat. The sausage links and patties are made with turkey, as is the pepperoni; pork products are not offered in the schools. Tater tots and other items are baked, not fried. Deep-fat fryers were taken out of service in 2009, according to Wayne Grasela, who heads food service operations for the District.
The aim, says Grasela, is to serve a nutritious, appealing breakfast and lunch to as many students as possible each day. The average is 55,000 breakfasts and 88,000 lunches a day at 238 schools. At middle and high schools, 65 to 70 percent of students in school that day typically eat lunch, with a higher percentage participating at the elementary level, Grasela said.
Menus stay the same across schools, with one variation: There’s one menu for schools like PMA that have full-service kitchens, where food is prepared on-site, and another menu at schools where meals are pre-plated by the vendor and then warmed and served on school premises. Menus for both types of meals can be found on the District website.
Pre-plate vs. full service
According to the PMA students, the pre-plated meals may be acceptable, but the food prepared in the school kitchen tends to be tastier. The Asian chicken dish is an example.
All three said they got the pre-plated variety at schools they previously attended. The meals weren’t “the best, but at the same time they filled us,” said Shaw, sticking up for the pre-prepped offerings. “We always had a well-balanced meal.”
But the choices, if not entirely bland, weren’t as flavorful or varied, said Arbelo.
At the Philadelphia Military Academy, Millicent Furgess is the food services manager, and she’s worked at both types of cafeterias. There’s a big difference, she said, between full-service and limited service, where more food tends to be left uneaten. Fresh-cooked offerings are eaten with gusto, she said.
Students “are expressing to us how flavorful the food is, how nutritious it is,” Furgess said. “They love the fact that they have so many things to choose from.” Even beans – typically a hard sell with students – are popular with a dash of taco seasoning.
“Here, it’s really like a restaurant, and they’re my customers,” she said.
In terms of flavor and freshness, the full-service option wins out, and kitchens are being expanded where possible, said Grasela. Not quite half of the schools he oversees –107 – are full service, with 131 schools using prepared meals. Pre-plated tends to prevail at the elementary school level for two main reasons – a lack of space for the equipment needed to run a kitchen and the reality of serving younger children, with more frequent wasted servings and spilled trays.
But Grasela acknowledged that the pre-plated meals were “a hard sell for high schoolers.” That observation is borne out at Constitution, the only District high school without food prepared on site: Just 10 percent of students at the school eat the free lunches, which are pre-plated, data show.
“The goal is to convert as many schools as possible from pre-plate to full service – the ones that are physically capable of being converted,” said Grasela. “At the same time, we’re enhancing the pre-plate meal to make it as attractive and nutritionally sound as possible.”
The overall experience at each school is of concern to the food services staff, he said.
“We have to make sure students have time to consume their meal and that it’s attractive and that it‘s not something they’re going to throw at each other; they’re going to consume it,” he said.
Although many students find school breakfast and lunch appealing, others do not. A half-dozen female students at Northeast High School, who declined to give their names, had complaints while waiting at a bus stop one afternoon across from the school.
“The food’s not horrible, but it’s not that good,” said one student. Their main complaints focused on a lack of variety – “too many wraps, too much pizza,” said one – and the lack of choices for students eating lunch later in the day. One young woman stuck up for school food. “It’s OK. It’s not that bad,” she said.
Food service that works
On a morning in January in the full-service kitchen at Roberto Clemente Middle School in the Juniata Park section of Philadelphia, cook Denise Stevens was scrambling eggs in an oversized iron skillet. Making food taste good gives her joy, she said. “I like to cut up my onions, celery, green peppers for the sauce when we have meatballs,” Stevens said. “I season them up.”
Stevens said she describes to her grandchildren the food she’s prepared at Clemente “and they get upset because they don’t get this – they get the pre-plate.”
Meanwhile, manager Patricia Cook tracked whether the bagels and other main entrees were being snatched up and what else Stevens and other staffers would need to prepare. Boxes of ingredients were being delivered to the school, making the chaotic lunchtime hustle even busier.
“We get our lettuce chopped and vacuum-packed,” said Cook. “We get spring greens mix too, whole tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, cucumber, zucchini, fresh broccoli – a whole lot of fresh vegetables that we use.”
Shanira Law, 12; Mahogany Woods, 14; and Inaya Benjamin, 14 – all 7th graders – were ready for lunch.
“I like the food,” Law said. “We have different options, and most of the time it’s tasty.”
Woods agreed, as did Benjamin. “The food here actually tastes really good,” said Benjamin, mentioning the strawberry cup and the sloppy joe sandwich as her favorites. Milk is always served, as is fresh fruit.
At Clemente and all other schools, the cafeteria staff set up “share tables” or “share boxes,” where students can place packaged, uneaten food items for classmates who may want more. The program only allows one breakfast and one lunch per student per day.
The girls agreed that the share table was a good idea. “Some people want seconds,” said Law.
“It’s a way to switch things up,” said Woods.
A few yards away, students were queued up, each waiting to punch in his or her seven-digit student ID code. Turns out, even kindergartners learn this routine, and food services personnel use the data to claim reimbursement and track student dining habits.
On this day, the dining area at Clemente was noisy, but lunch was getting eaten up. The French toast sticks with syrup cups were a hit, though small syrupy puddles were here and there on the floor.
Things were tidier at Bridesburg Elementary School as the last wave of students chose their lunch items. Students get pre-made selections chilled or heated on site. This day’s offerings were cheese pizza or a pepperoni pizza wrap with a tossed salad, a banana and milk.
The question is whether the school should acquire a full kitchen, though the current plan works well, with minimal fuss and less cleanup, Grasela said.
“Over the last few years, the meals have gotten better,” said Eileen Lewis, a regional supervisor. “This is what they know, and they’re enjoying the meals.”
Eighth graders Shamaur Williams, 14, and Ashlee Torpey, 13, expressed support for the food quality and overall ambience.
“At my old school, the lunchroom wasn’t very pretty,” Williams said. “Here, everyone is welcoming and the food is good. And if you don’t like something, instead of throwing it in the trash, you can put it in the ‘share’ box.”
“Everybody gets vegetables, fruits, protein and milk,” Torpey said. “If you don’t like something, somebody else can take it and not waste it.”
At the Philadelphia Military Academy, Moll, Arbelo and Shaw insisted they are big fans of school food. There is more to the lunchroom experience than whatever is on the menu, said Arbelo.
“Eating together helps us connect more,” he said. “There are the interactions that students have. There will be trades, sort of like a marketplace – ‘If you don’t want this and you do want that, then fine, let’s switch.’
“There’s communication and a sense of family. If we see one of our friends still hungry, we’ll say, ‘Here, take some of this.’”