"We have a lot of respect for the budget issues the district is dealing with, but this is potentially going to have an impact on children's health," said Sandy Sherman, director of nutrition education at the Food Trust, a Philadelphia nonprofit.
District spokeswoman Shana Kemp said that all meals would continue to meet U.S. Department of Agriculture and Pennsylvania Department of Education nutritional standards and that the district "will provide the opportunity to further increase the availability of fresh fruits and salads within these school cafeterias."
But come fall, three-quarters of existing elementary and middle school full-service kitchens will close, leaving just 62 schools offering freshly prepared food. Most of the remaining kitchens are in high schools.
Nine of the district's 196 elementary and middle schools will have full-service kitchens. The schools switching to pre-plated meals were chosen because their food programs were losing money.
The 26 schools where kitchens will close educate 16,681 children and serve 21,108 meals annually, and many are in the city's poorest neighborhoods. They will switch from food prepared in the school by cafeteria workers to meals cooked, plated, and frozen several days before consumption and trucked in from a warehouse in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Some satellite meals are served hot; others are not.
In the last few years, the district received kudos for its efforts to incorporate fresher, healthier food into school breakfasts and lunches. But "this is a real step back," said Jonathan Stein, general counsel at Community Legal Services and a longtime antipoverty activist.
Students find the pre-plated meals less appetizing, cafeteria workers say. In the schools without full-service kitchens, more food is thrown out and fewer students eat.
"We worry about meal participation rates," said Alyssa Moles of the Food Trust. "While we recognize that the pre-plated meals are nutritionally sound - they meet the USDA guidelines - there's a stigma attached to them. "
Two elementary schools whose kitchens will close, Hunter in Kensington and Penn Alexander in West Philadelphia, had participated in the acclaimed Farm to School Program, which brings fresh, local fruits and vegetables into school kitchens.
It's not clear if the switch means the end of Hunter's and Penn Alexander's participation in Farm to School, Sherman said.
Loretta Steffy, a cafeteria manager just laid off by the district as a result of the kitchen closings, said she worried about the effects of the cuts.
"A lot of kids just come to school to eat," she said, "and they'll suffer if they go to pre-plated food. That stuff has preservatives in it, color. I don't think it's good. Some kids won't eat it."
Steffy worked for the last seven years at University City High School, a Farm to School participant that's not being cut. But she lost her job because her 16 years of seniority allowed a worker displaced from a school that lost its kitchen to take her place.
Despite the perceptions that kids don't like cafeteria food, most of her students relished what the kitchen staff at her school prepared, Steffy said.
"They were happy to see asparagus, corn on the cob - the real thing. Normally, they wouldn't touch greens, but they ate them fresh," she said. "This is a real big letdown for those schools."
Even in a building without Farm to School, kitchen staff use seasonings, are certified in food safety, and cook food to order just before students eat it, not days in advance, Steffy said.
Cutting the full-service kitchens, she said, is "a shame. We're on this big nutrition kick, and it seems like the kids are really accepting it. If they care so much about the kids, they need to let them have this good food."
Advocates also say the move could have unintended financial implications for the district.
"This is a short-term cost-cutting measure. But if the kids stop eating those meals, at the end of the day the district will lose federal revenue, and the kids will lose nutrition," Moles said.
The district is reimbursed for a portion of its meal costs by the federal government, based on the number of meals served.
Kemp, the district spokeswoman, said that federal funding did not reflect the actual meal costs, and that recent federal legislation had reauthorized the funding but with no increase in per-meal reimbursement.
"By more closely aligning the district's expenses to the federal reimbursement amount, we are able to save money and direct financial resources to core educational programs," Kemp said in a statement.
As a result of cutting the 26 kitchens, the district laid off 123 cafeteria managers, cooks, utility workers, and other food workers.
Kemp said parents at the affected schools had not been directly notified.
Helen Gym, a founder of Parents United for Public Education, said that "in a city where nutrition is such a major issue for so many children who live in poverty, this is a questionable choice."
Advocates have been lobbying the district to try to reverse the cuts. Some plan to address the School Reform Commission, which will meet in a special session Friday.
Philadelphia Schools Losing Kitchens
H.R. Edmunds Elementary
Feltonville Arts and
Juniata Park Elementary
Penn Alexander Elementary
Penn Treaty Middle
Grover Washington Middle
Contact staff writer Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @newskag on Twitter. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at www.philly.com/schoolfiles