January 19 — 3:13 pm, 2016

Slowly but surely, school food is improving

hype philly garden fest mel eppsl Mel Epps / The Food Trust

There are so many negative feelings about school lunch and breakfast programs. Just ask any student, parent of a student in the system, teacher, administrator, health professional, or person who cares about good nutrition, and they will tell you the same thing. But there is a big secret out there that no one seems to know about: Wonderful and important changes have been made and are in the works in the world of school food. 

Importantly, the passage of the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 created mandates requiring the offering of more healthy, colorful fruits and vegetables in school meals as well as more whole grains, and lower-fat, lower-sugar, and lower-sodium foods. Because of these nationwide changes, children are consuming 16 percent more vegetables per day and 23 percent more fruits. These changes are a huge win for lower-income children across the country, including here in Philadelphia, where the new nutritional standards were adopted in the earliest phase of implementation and where every student is now eligible for free breakfast and lunch. 

Serving over 27 million meals per year, with only about $3 to spend per lunch, the School District of Philadelphia’s Division of Food Services is, by necessity, a busy and efficient operation. Despite budget constraints and capacity challenges, however, the District has quietly been working to improve the quality and appeal of school meals through several efforts. 

For example, since 2009, the District has been engaged in “farm to school” purchasing practices, in which more than 30 schools receive locally grown fruits and vegetables for use in school meals. This initiative supports local farmers, gets fresher produce to kids, and lessens the transportation distance. This program also includes a “harvest of the month” marketing campaign that educates students about what foods grow nearby and why they’re healthy.

Additionally, the District has worked closely with Temple University’s Center for Obesity Research and Education and The Food Trust to research school breakfast programs and how to increase participation in them. They also partner with The Food Trust’s HYPE program (Healthy You. Positive Energy.), which empowers youth to take leadership roles in their schools, promoting healthy eating and physical activity. All of these efforts have been preceded by strong nutrition education programming led by the School District of Philadelphia, which partners with multiple organizations across the city to provide in-classroom education to children about healthy eating.

These programs have not solved the entire problem of making school lunches nutritious and appealing, but given that the federal reimbursement rate for school meals is simply not enough to adequately support labor, overhead, equipment, and food costs, many pretty wonderful things are going on. 

It is important to remember that when funding cuts occur, music programs and art programs are simply eliminated — but for school meals, the show must go on. Philadelphia schools have had to soldier on with less staff and less money for their food services operations, while responding to new federal guidelines and to the public at large. In light of that, what the School District is doing with the help of The Food Trust and many other partners is quite remarkable and should make us optimistic that, slowly but surely, our children are getting better, more nutritious meals every day.

Barbara Gold is a member of The Food Trust’s board of directors.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

The Notebook’s next print edition will focus on youth, schools, and food. We will discuss the District’s Department of Food Services and the work it does. But we will also take a look at the breakfast and lunch programs as several District schools, including South Philadelphia, Saul, Clemente, and Randolph to see the steps each is taking to promote healthy eating and nutrition.

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