When we think about the critical importance of public schools in Philadelphia, providing breakfast is not usually the first thing that comes to mind.
But we live in the nation’s poorest big city. Hunger is a major issue and an obstacle to learning. More than one in four Philadelphians live below the poverty line. One-third of city residents depend on food stamps. And the social costs of poor nutrition are enormous.
The school breakfast and lunch programs address hunger head-on. More than 140,000 free meals are provided by the School District each day. Here’s recent evidence of their importance: When schools closed for two days during the January blizzard, phones at city’s anti-hunger organizations were ringing with calls from families looking for food.
Because Philadelphia is a high-poverty school district, federal guidelines allow it to provide free meals to all students, dispensing with most administrative paperwork. Spurred on by local advocates, the District has been on the forefront in moving toward universal feeding. Nearly 50 charters qualify for universal eligibility as well, because of high poverty rates. This means no students in these schools face a stigma for needing free food.
Some schools have seized the opportunity to ensure that virtually all their students eat a nutritious, free breakfast and lunch every day. Others are undermining their own educational goals by not ensuring high program participation.
Although running these programs is a major undertaking, its cost to the District is minimal. It’s nearly all paid for through the federal National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program.
There have been big improvements to those programs in recent years, with help from First Lady Michelle Obama. The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 has pushed schools to serve whole grains, fruits, and vegetables and cut back on fat, sodium, and sugar. It encourages purchasing from local farms and gardens. But the program is still limited by low funding, bureaucratic guidelines, and the influence of the dairy industry and other lobbyists.
The District’s Division of Food Services deserves credit for delivering millions of nutritious meals annually despite those constraints. Its willingness to work with the city’s robust community of food advocates has undoubtedly played a part in recent progress that Philadelphia has made in reducing childhood obesity.
Students are more food-literate than ever. They want better-tasting and healthier options, and they prefer freshly cooked food to the prepackaged meals that have been warmed up on site. But it’s an enormous challenge to provide that on the budget that the feds provide: $3.15 per lunch, about half of which goes to labor and indirect costs. A higher federal reimbursement rate would ease the way to better meals, more full-service kitchens – and healthier kids.
We are excited to see increasing attention to food issues in classrooms and schoolyards as well as cafeterias. We’d like to see as much attention given to physical activity throughout the school day.
Food and nutrition should be front and center as the city explores the community school model and looks to create partnerships to turn schools into vital community hubs. Even with scarce resources, schools can be powerful players, putting children on track to live healthy lives.