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District answers questions about school lunches




This guest blog post comes from the Philadelphia Urban Food and Fitness Alliance. PUFFA solicited questions from students, parents/guardians, and other community residents and received responses from the Food Services Division of the School District of Philadelphia.

1.  Why can't our children have organic milk to drink?  

The total cost allotted to a school lunch is approximately $2.73, and $1.39 is allotted for food, $1.03 for labor and 39 cents the balance for infrastructure/administrative costs. Within the budget of $1.39 for food, 25 cents is available for milk. At this time, the cost of organic milk would significantly exceed the available funds for this item.

2.  Why can't my children have more fresh food in their meals (e.g. for pre-plated)?

As described above, there is a strict budget for school lunch. The total cost allotted to school lunch is $2.73, and $1.39 is allotted for food. Within the budget of $1.39 for food, 20 cents is available for fruit, 25 cents for milk and 20-50 cents for protein. Introducing more fresh food would require a larger budget for each meal. The meals must be nutritionally balanced to meet USDA requirements, so, for example, the protein cannot be swapped out for a vegetable. In addition, when meals are pre-plated, fresh food like lettuce and tomato added to burgers may not freeze or travel well, resulting in an unappealing appearance and texture.

3.  Why are junk items like pizza offered every day?

There is variety in school lunch offerings, including meals like these taken from satellite menus:

  • Tuna salad on wheat bun or toasted cheese on oat bran bread with fresh orange, blended fruit juice, 1% milk
  • Whole grain spaghetti w/meatballs or taco seasoned beef with nacho chips, pear cup, 1% milk
  • 4 x 6 pizza or beef patty on a bun with baby carrots, ranch dressing, blended fruit juice, 1% milk

The USDA and school districts conduct extensive research when creating meals that kids will eat and still comply with nutritional standards. Pizza is a popular item on the menu because youth like pizza, and the meal still meets the USDA requirements for protein, fat and other nutrients (see below). The meal also includes a serving of fresh vegetable and milk that they need to grow well.

  • calorie chart


In addition, the SDP participates in the Healthier US School Challenge (HUSSC), a voluntary initiative established in 2004 to recognize schools participating in the National School Lunch Program that have created healthier school environments through promotion of nutrition and physical activity. The School District strives to introduce more fruits and veggies, especially dark green and orange vegetables, dry beans, and peas.

4.  How can the pre-plated meals be made better?  My child doesn't like them.

The School District serves about 110,000 102,000 lunches a week day. There are challenges to preparing these meals quickly, such as heating the pre-plated meals thoroughly to make the meals more attractive. While not all young people will like every menu item on any given day, participation rates for breakfast and lunch significantly exceed comparable Council of Great City Schools benchmarks. This means many young people are eating school lunches.

5.  How can meals be made more culturally appropriate?

The School District understands the diversity of the student body. The School District serves about 110,000 102,000 lunches a week day in almost 300 schools citywide. There are few contractors available to provide meals at this volume that meet the USDA nutrition standards at the price the School District can afford. There are efforts to offer vegetarian and multicultural options like grilled cheese, and sweet and sour chicken with vegetables on rice. Community members with knowledge of culturally appropriate foods can create meal recipes that meet the USDA nutrition requirements and budget constraints and submit the recipes to various contests and the SDP directly for consideration. For questions or more information on our programs and services, call 215-400-FOOD or email us.

6. How can students have a chance to talk with and get to know cafeteria workers?

There are many cafeteria workers who take great care in the food they prepare and are hopeful that young people are getting the nutrition they need to learn and grow. PUFFA has brainstormed about ways that young people can talk with the cafeteria workers to become more involved with the process of providing free and healthy school lunches. Possible ways to improve the relationship include creating school food ambassadors, whereby students and cafeteria workers meet; having school food and recognizing the hard work of cafeteria workers during student assemblies; and interviews and spotlights on cafeteria workers in places such as the Notebook.

7.   What are satellite kitchens, and how are they different from full-service kitchens? How does what kitchen a school has impact the students and what is served for breakfast and lunch?

Simply stated, a satellite kitchen has cold storage and ovens that receive and heat foods. There is no food preparation possible in satellite kitchens because they are not equipped with things like stoves, cookware and utensils. A full-service kitchen has this kind of equipment and the cafeteria workers have the ability to prepare foods on site. Only about one-third of schools are equipped with full service, because they are expensive to maintain and operate. Here is a summary list of main differences between the types of kitchens.

Satellite (233 Sites) including 21 Charter Schools:

  • Satellite feeding program provides pre-plated individual service meals to students in schools where full-service cafeterias are not feasible.
  • Meals prepared off-site contain the necessary nutritional components required for federal subsidy reimbursement.
  • Frozen and fresh meal components are delivered to satellite sites one day prior to consumption and refrigerated.
  • On the day of service, the refrigerated meal is heated and served to students along with fresh fruit / vegetables and milk.
  • Satellite cafeterias serve approximately 64,000 lunches and 37,000 breakfasts each day.

Full-Service (67 Sites) Secondary Schools:

  • Full-service cafeterias prepare meals on-site following structured menus that adhere to USDA nutritional guidelines.
  • They also offer prepackaged snack items and non-carbonated beverages for sale either through a vending program or over the counter sales.
  • Full-Service cafeterias serve approximately 38,000 lunches and 23,000 breakfasts each day.

8. What are the differences between a fresh meal and a pre-packaged one when it comes to the food selection and nutritional value?

The Division of Food Services prepares menus on a monthly basis.  Menus are designed to meet the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines for protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium, fat, and calories. Satellite menus and full -service menus must comply with these standards.

9. What is Farm to School, and how does a school’s involvement in this program affect its menu offerings?

Philadelphia’s Farm to School program helps bring more fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables to school meals, helps build awareness about healthy eating, and helps our region’s farmers by giving them additional business opportunities. Menus in Farm to School cafeterias are the same as those offered in all other full-service kitchens. However, these sites may feature fresh local produce instead of fruits and vegetables procured in other ways. For example, Farm to School cafeterias may get to enjoy a Pennsylvania apple, as opposed to one from Washington state, or fresh broccoli from New Jersey, instead of frozen broccoli. Finally, Farm to School sites may offer students a menu item in addition to the menu as it’s written, such as braised cabbage as a vegetable choice, or baked sweet potatoes.

10.  How can I help make school food better?

Parents and students can work together to make school food better in many ways. First, people can educate friends, families and neighbors about all the work that goes into making free lunches, the budget allotted for each meal, how kitchens function in schools, and nutritional requirements set by USDA. Second, people can form relationships with their school administrators and kitchen workers to let them know you have concerns and want to contribute to solutions through open and constructive communication. Third, people can attend their Home and School or parent association meetings to organize actions like petitions and testimony to the School Reform Commission.

If you have a question you would like to submit, please send it to:

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