Through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s school lunch and breakfast programs, schools play a vital part in feeding students – especially in Philadelphia, where poverty can lead to food insecurity for many families.
To be fully informed about school food programs, parents should consider these questions:
What do I have to do for my child to get free breakfast and lunch in school?
All students in the School District are offered breakfast and lunch at no cost, regardless of a family’s individual circumstances, under a federal program called the “community eligibility provision.” The District qualifies for CEP through “direct certification” because the poverty rate among Philadelphia public school students is so high that USDA has decided it is better and more economical to feed everyone rather than require families to fill out individual applications.
What if my child attends a charter school?
Some charter schools also qualify for CEP through “direct certification” and feed every student. In others, charter parents must fill out a form annually to certify their eligibility and allow the school to do this. Some offer free breakfast and lunch, but only to those who are individually eligible under USDA’s free-and-reduced-price guidelines. A few only have lunch, and a few do not participate in USDA feeding programs at all. If the school doesn’t have the program, you can advocate for it with school officials. (See thenotebook.org for a chart showing charters’ participation.)
Does my child’s school have a satellite kitchen or a full-service kitchen?
Satellite kitchens offer meals made off site, so they include mainly previously frozen and prepared foods. Full-service kitchens offer meals cooked on site, so they are fresher and more varied, although they, too, can include pre-packaged components such as a bag of sliced apples. Student feedback on meals from full-service kitchens is more positive than feedback on pre-plated meals. (See list on p. 15).
What time is my child scheduled to eat breakfast and lunch?
School breakfast and lunch times vary from school to school. In large schools, there are many lunch periods, and lunch may be scheduled for a child very early or late in the day. You should also ask whether breakfast is served before or after the start of the school day. If it is before, your child must arrive early or lose out.
How much time does my child have to eat breakfast and lunch?
That varies by school but is usually 25 to 45 minutes, sometimes with part of the period set aside for recess. Fast eaters may find themselves with extra time, while slow eaters may not have time to finish. If there is an issue, you should help your child manage their eating in the time allotted.
Who should I complain to if my child doesn’t eat the food?
For general issues – for instance, if you would like more locally grown items on the menu – call the District food services hotline (215-400-FOOD) or complete the contact form (see box below). Better yet, make sure your child gives meaningful, specific feedback (not just, “The food is nasty”) on the survey that the District gives to students at the end of the year.
What can I go to the principal about?
Control over the menu does not rest with the principal. But a principal can be an advocate with Food Services and can make sure that the food being offered is presented and prepared well. You can speak up if the cafeteria continually runs out of the most desirable choices, if the food is not well-prepared, if it looks unappetizing, if the lines are too long and students don’t have enough time to eat, and if the cafeteria is not orderly, safe, and efficient.
Where can I access the food menus? How accurate are they?
The School District’s Division of Food Services lists its monthly satellite and full-service menus on its website (see box below). With the menus, you can talk to your children about the options and encourage them to try new or unfamiliar foods. Menus are decided in advance and may change.
How many options does my child get for lunch and breakfast?
Students are supposed to get a choice at every meal, both for food and beverage. If your child can’t drink milk, lactose-free milk is available. Students are required to take a fruit for breakfast and a fruit or vegetable for lunch.
What are the nutritional standards for the meals?
USDA standards require that every lunch meal provide a fruit, vegetable, grain, meat or meat alternative, and milk. Every breakfast meal must have a fruit, grain, and milk component. The standards set appropriate calorie limits for each student age group. Serving sizes follow the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Is the food in vending machines good for my child?
Items available in vending machines, school stores, a la carte lines and fundraisers are called “competitive foods” because they are not provided through USDA. The Wellness Policy of the District requires that all competitive foods in a school must meet the nutrition standards. For instance, school vending machines do not carry sugary drinks.
What are the rules of the cafeteria?
They vary depending on the school, taking into account the ages of the children and overall enrollment. Some schools have silent cafeterias, while others restrict where students can sit. In some schools, students can eat their lunch anywhere in the building.
Are there other ways to get involved?
The Chef Ann Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping schools improve students’ eating experiences, has a Parent Advocacy Toolkit urging parents to become familiar with the USDA program and spend time in your child’s cafeteria to try the food and talk to workers. The foundation also encourages starting or joining advocacy groups to identify issues, do research, and propose solutions.
You can also raise awareness about more ways the District can bring healthy foods to your child’s school. See whether your child’s school participates with the District’s Farm to School program, which brings fresh produce from local farms to schools. If it doesn’t, you can advocate. The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, a competitive award from the Pennsylvania Department of Education, gives fresh fruits and vegetables to select elementary schools.
Links to more resources
School District Menus
District’s Division of Food Services
Division of Food Services Contact Form
District’s Wellness Policy
USDA’s School Food FAQs
USDA Dietary Guidelines
Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools
The Food Trust
Farm to School program
Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program
Chef Ann Foundation Parent Advocacy Toolkit