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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.

Nutrition 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: kimberlyl@phmc.org

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Comments (18)

Submitted by Anon (not verified) on March 14, 2012 5:19 pm

Yet some schools discourage children from bringing their own lunch so they can rake in the federal dollars for these sub-standard meals few of the folks in charge would dream of feeding their own children.

If you can't serve organic milk, serve water. It's healthier. Non-organic milk, apples and grapes are full of pesticide that can't be washed off or filtered out and milk contains antibiotics. Regular milk tops the list of food experts won't touch, yet we have no problem feeding it to the children in Philadelphia.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 14, 2012 5:52 pm

$1.39 for food and almost 20% of that cost is devoted to MILK? Milk is not particularly nutritious and strawberry/chocolate sugarmilk is especially awful.

I am at a universal free lunch/breakfast school with a full service kitchen. Diabetic students go without eating because they know if they eat the breakfast being served the amount of sugar in it will make them sick.

I am also appalled at the amount of waste. Why must everything be in styrofoam? When I was a kid, you got a plastic plate/tray that was used thousands of times. Now, 85 students fill 3 huge trash bins at every meal. Why?

It is proven that better nutrition reduces behavior problems.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 14, 2012 8:19 pm

This makes me sad. I am appalled by the lunches that our students are served. And I find myself daily digging the styrofoam trays out of trash cans or begging kids to save them for me to use in my art classroom rather than having them be added to a landfill.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 14, 2012 10:15 pm

Also, keep in mind that hundreds, if not thousands, of uneaten meals are thrown in the trash because it's against district policy to send it over to a nearby homeless shelter.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 14, 2012 10:24 pm

Are there still salad bars at Promise Academies?

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 14, 2012 10:03 pm

Schools are penalized if EVERY student does not eat breakfast or lunch. Many students do not eat the food because it is so unappetizing, but are told they MUST punch their number into the system so the school is credited.

Submitted by Teacher (not verified) on March 15, 2012 9:38 am

The latest actual science (not based upon lobbying from the dairy and meat industries) dictates a healthy meal looks a little more like this: http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/pyramid/

The fact that DAIRY is such a huge portion of our children's meals is atrocious! The hormones and conditions involved in its production severely outweigh any of the nutritional benefits.

Also, the "efforts" to offer more vegetarian meals is disappointing. While it's nice that the options pop up sometimes, the issue is that for many students, being vegetarian is a lifestyle, not a taste. The only effective vegetarian meal service is consistent vegetarian meal service.

Submitted by Philly Teacher (not verified) on March 15, 2012 6:22 pm

Nutritious? really? Breakfast this week has consisted of a muffin and a box of milk. I don't think that is such a nutritious breakfast.
Lunch? I would like to see the people making these decisions about lunch eat the lunch my students are given everyday for an entire school year. Then things will change. They're disgusting. I won't touch them.
On the "menu" they give us for the month it says they have dried fruit and crackers and jelly available everyday. I put my students up to asking them everyday for them at lunch and they never have them.

Submitted by Teacher (not verified) on March 15, 2012 7:27 pm

A pre-packaged donut and milk loaded with high fructose corn syrup is a healthy breakfast????? The kids stop at Wawa and get a healthier meal there. Their school breakfast ends up in the trash because it's so gross. I feel so badly for the children in poverty whose only source of food is the school.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 17, 2012 1:47 pm

I feel bad for kids who have to eat it. Also interesting is the fact that my 4th grader had breakfast served to ALL the class, right in the classroom this week during PSSA's. I think it's to make sure that nobody takes the test on an empty stomach, but they give them things like muffins and donuts with chocolate milk. How about a hard boiled egg?

Submitted by MBA to M'ed mom (not verified) on March 15, 2012 9:38 pm

I would like to see our students who receive a free lunch, not have that lunch be denied because the lunch room is too loud. I would like to see students eat without being screamed at, not be humilated when they would like to leave the lunch room and not have their recess time taken away almost every day because they can not be silent and motionless during lunch time.

Parents need to visit their children at school to see how they are being treated. I watched a girl break down and cry because she was told she was not allowed to get her lunch. After a half hour, she couldn't take the humiliation any more and bawled. Luckily after I reported that incident, the principal jumped right on it, but I wonder how many other kids (elementary age) are getting screamed at during lunch. Kids whose parents have time and $ bring their lunch not only for the nutrition but so they actually will get something to eat.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 16, 2012 2:09 pm

I am a parent that also feels the school cafeteria is frequently an unpleasant place to be. In addition, my kids only get 20 minutes to eat, so even though I send a nutritious lunch, they often cannot finish in time!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 16, 2012 2:55 pm

one year i taught summer school and they offered "lunch" -- string cheese and two beef jerky slim jims along with extremely concentrated grape juice (not sure it was actually juice). I couldn't believe it!

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 16, 2012 7:36 pm

Teachers and Parents,
The breakfast and lunch meals are MANDATED by the USDA!! Just like you are required to teach the test (PSSA) we are required to offer 5 components of a lunch or 4 for a breakfast. The components for lunch is a protein,a milk, a vegtable,a bread and a fruit. Change the laws and you change what your children eat for breakfast and lunch.I for one would jump for joy!

Submitted by Mensagens Para Orkut (not verified) on March 17, 2012 7:00 am

Schools are penalized if EVERY apprentice does not eat breakfast or lunch. Many acceptance do not eat the aliment because it is so unappetizing, but are told they MUST bite their amount into the arrangement so the academy is credited.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on March 17, 2012 10:48 am

Mensagens,
"Schools" are not penalized the principals are penalized it's part of their report card under Arlene Ackerman. She is gone but not forgotten the policy still exsists. Talk to your principal.

Submitted by denny ules (not verified) on June 11, 2013 1:34 pm
The Division of Food Services prepares menus on a monthly basis. Menus are designed to meet the United States Department of Agriculture peri menopause symptoms
Submitted by Sneha Gupta (not verified) on April 30, 2014 3:00 am
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