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Food for thought

How can schools keep kids fed and focused in Philly, which has the highest poverty rate among big U.S. cities?

Kensington high school grab and go lunch.
Darryl Murphy

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

Harvey Finkle
Imagine a Philadelphia family of four trying to pay for food, housing, transportation, clothes and utilities on an income of just $24,300, or $16,020 for a family of two. That’s the federal poverty limit.

And that’s the reality facing thousands of the city’s children. About 37 percent of them live at or below the poverty line.

Now, imagine trying to get by on half that.

“Deep poverty” is half the poverty limit, and 17.8 percent of Philadelphia’s children – 63,500 – live in families at that income level. Philadelphia has long had the unhappy distinction of having the highest child poverty rate of any large city in the country.

Given that grim reality, the breakfasts, lunches and afterschool meals served by the District – free to all children since the 2014-15 school year – are vital ways for children to stave off hunger. All public schools and students are automatically included; parents don’t have to fill out any paperwork.

District schools served 50,159 breakfasts and 86,006 lunches in November, the latest figures available. And the 4,200 “Twilight Meals” served daily by the District at 136 afterschool programs – full meals, not snacks – give some children a third serving.

The need is great. The hunger relief organization Feeding America says that 22.4 percent of Philadelphia children are “food insecure.” According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, this means they have limited or uncertain access to adequate food.

For a lot of children, school breakfasts and lunches are the only meals that they get for that day, said Wayne Grasela, head of the District’s Food Services program.

Ensuring that students eat well is arguably part of a school’s core mission. Dependable access to nutritious food is closely connected to everything from better grades to less absenteeism, said Kathy Fisher, policy manager for Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, which combines the coordination of emergency food relief with advocacy.

“There is a direct link to lifelong ability to thrive,” she said.

Despite the proven importance of a healthy breakfast and lunch, troubling differences can be seen in meals served from school to school. Districtwide, the number of breakfasts served is only about 58 percent of the number of lunches served. The national best practices standard, Grasela said, is for the number of breakfasts served to average 70 percent of the lunch total.

In many District schools, the numbers are very low. In about one-third – 75 in all – 25 percent or less of the students get a school breakfast, and in some, the percentage is in the single digits.

Calls seeking comment about the reason for the low percentages from the principals of a sampling of those schools –- Adaire, Bridesburg, Forrest, Key, Lea, Loesche, and McCall Elementary Schools, and Wilson Middle School –- were not returned.

Staffing problems and the physical layout of some schools present challenges to increasing breakfast numbers, Fisher said. But in too many schools, she said, breakfasts are only served in the cafeteria and students have to arrive early and line up to get their meals, which many don’t have time to do before class.

Other models are available, such as breakfast in the classroom, Fisher said, “but right now [adopting those models] is still very optional – it’s up to the principal.”

Grasela said that Food Services is redoubling its efforts to put breakfast on principals’ radar, with a series of meetings in recent weeks targeting schools where participation is low.

“We come in and say, `We’ll do anything we can,’” Grasela said. ”The task is to better support the schools, [and] it’s starting to take hold.”

Making breakfast easier

At Kensington Health Sciences Academy, the administration teamed up with University of Pennsylvania students and professors to devise a “Grab and Go” plan where students at the high school get a healthy breakfast off a cart placed at the school’s entrance. Before that, only about 80 students had been getting breakfast, including 40 that had a morning meeting in the cafeteria, said principal James Williams.

Now, about 200 are getting the morning meal, he said. To promote the plan, the school purchased two blenders to make nutritious smoothies, Williams added.

“We have created a culture where it is expected that many of our students get their food in the school instead of bringing in a bag of barbecue chips and an orange soda,” he said.

“We cannot educate kids if they are not here, nor can we educate them if they’re not engaged – if they are preoccupied with food insecurity. We’ve got to do something about it.”

At Willard Elementary School in East Kensington, having breakfast in the classroom has boosted the numbers to about 75 percent of enrollment.

Kellyann McCloskey, a school-based teacher leader at Willard, said that when the school moved to a new building in 2010, the students were fed breakfast in the brand-new cafeteria.

“[But] we found that left a lot of kids not able to have breakfast. They would come in at 8:30 and either miss breakfast or have to go to the classroom late because they were still eating,” McCloskey said.

So the switch was made to the classrooms, where breakfast “is waiting for them when they get there. The teachers start teaching while the children are eating. They wrap it up by 8:50. We reach a lot more students that way,” she said.

McCloskey acknowledged that the new setup is “a little inconvenient … but the most important thing is that we know that many more kids are getting breakfast.”

The morning meal “can make or break the child’s day. It helps them focus, it can calm them down, and it gives them the energy for the morning,” she said.

Willard goes beyond providing breakfast and lunch. In a conference room at the school, several shelves are full of food donated by teachers. Bags of provisions – enough to last several days – are quietly distributed as often as once a week to a few families, said school counselor Teresa Bronte. On holidays, more households are included. In her office, Bronte also keeps snacks for students whose caregivers won’t be arriving home until late.

Bronte said that she and others at the school started the informal food pantry after teachers saw some students coming to school with empty lunchboxes, asking classmates for food so they could take it home. She said she includes a list of local food pantries along with the food and she is hopeful that she can soon connect with a food program through which more families will benefit.

“I’m sure there are other kids I don’t know about, also going hungry,” Bronte said. “I think about it a lot.”

Quality of food

The District is also addressing issues that affect the quality of the food served and therefore the likelihood that students will eat it.

After cutting back on the number of full-service kitchens earlier in the decade, turning them into “pre-plate” sites where packaged meals were brought in from outside, the District has restored all the old full-service sites and is still working to create even more full-service schools, Grasela said. The District now has 107 schools with full-service kitchens and also supplies food to three charters with full-service kitchens.

That still leaves 141 District schools with prepackaged meals that are generally regarded as less palatable than those prepared in full-service kitchens. So the quality of those prepackaged meals is an important component of making sure students eat well. The District also supplies two charters with pre-plated meals.

The contract for pre-plated meals is expected to be awarded this year.

Grasela and District Chief Operating Officer Fran Burns said that the specifications for the food contract call for more fruit and vegetables to be served and allow for more flexibility in preparing school menus with items that students like and packaging that will allow more Grab and Go breakfasts to be served like those at Kensington Health Sciences.

“We are always looking to improve customer satisfaction,” Grasela said.

Summer meals

Summertime poses a major challenge to food-insecure families. The District serves food at all schools where programs are being held, amounting to about 350,000 meals last summer, said spokeswoman Megan Lello. That might seem like a lot, but it is only a few days’ worth of the breakfasts and lunches served during the school year.

Much of the gap is filled by the city Department of Parks and Recreation, which served about 1.6 million meals and more than 1.1 million snacks in the summer of 2015, the latest year for which exact figures are available.

Terri Kerwawich, the department’s summer food program director, said that meals are served at more than 800 sites throughout the city, including rec centers, places where other groups have summer activities, and Play Street blocks, where neighbors agree to close the street to traffic so that children can have a safe place to play and get lunch and a snack each day.

“If their parents aren’t able to provide fully for them, at least they get a nutritious meal through us,” Kerwawich said.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia also has a major summer food program. It handed out 665,000 meals and 250,000 snacks in the summer of 2015 .

During the school year, rec center afterschool programs also provide meals – about 2,000 a day. At the Rivera Recreation Center, at Fifth Street and Allegheny Avenue, director Beth Perkowski said that she orders 10 extra meals, along with 15 for the children in the afterschool program.

That’s because youngsters who are not in the program come by in the early evening, asking for food to take home, she said.

“It’s pretty evident that is all they are going to have for the rest of the night,” Perkowski said.

“Between us and school – that’s where they get enough to get by. … If they don’t have basic nutrition, it’s really tough for them.”

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