Philadelphia School District reopens some full-service cafeterias

At Juniata Park Academy , (from left) Israel Cruz, Kevin Torres, Nicholas Donato, and Lemuel Mender make their way through the cafeteria line. ED HILLE / Staff Photographer
At Juniata Park Academy , (from left) Israel Cruz, Kevin Torres, Nicholas Donato, and Lemuel Mender make their way through the cafeteria line. ED HILLE / Staff Photographer
Posted: November 06, 2012

Asked to describe the quality of her school cafeteria's food last year, Sophia Santiago wrinkled her nose. She narrowed her eyes. She chose her words carefully.

"The pizza tasted like rubber," said Sophia, 11, a sixth-grader at Juniata Park Academy. "I am so serious."

"Kids would just throw their whole lunch away," added fifth-grader Joseph Hamas, 10.

Squeezed by increasingly brutal budgets, the Philadelphia School District in recent years has moved to close dozens of full-service cafeterias, switching those schools to meals prepared in a warehouse in Brooklyn and trucked into Philadelphia.

Students, advocates, and even district staff agree: The pre-plated food is often less than appealing, to put it diplomatically.

Of the district's roughly 280 meal sites, most - about 200 - still receive the "satellite" meals made out of state, frozen, transported, and then warmed in school kitchens. But in an effort to make lunch more appetizing, the district in September converted 10 cafeterias back to full service, with on-site lunch ladies preparing meals daily.

The reaction at the 10 schools - Juniata Park, DeBurgos, Feltonville Arts and Sciences, Hunter, Munoz-Marin, Overbrook Education Center, Penn Alexander, Thurgood Marshall, Grover Washington, and Ziegler - has been tremendous, said Wayne Grasela, the district's senior vice president for food services.

Or, as Juniata Park seventh-grader Christy Tran put it, "everyone was doing a victory dance when they saw the kitchen was back to the way it used to be."

When the district closed 26 full-service cafeterias at the end of the 2010-11 school year, officials said they were saving $2.3 million. Grasela said reopening the 10 cafeterias this year was cost-neutral: Only schools with relatively modern buildings that didn't need new equipment were chosen.

The district is also relying on a "lean labor" model in the 10 kitchens: Though extra staff was brought back to accommodate the shift away from pre-plated meals, the district chooses menu items that don't require an abundance of prep work, thus limiting its labor cost.

On a day when rotini and meatballs are on the menu, for instance, workers don't have time to make fresh meatballs. They thaw and cook frozen meatballs, boil rotini, and heat sauce.

There's more to do this year, said cafeteria worker Migdalia Dancel, but the children are happier. They take more fruits and vegetables, have more choices, throw away less food.

"They can tell it's more fresh," Dancel said. "There's actually flavor."

Dancel and Grasela like the "educational component" of the return to full-service meals in 10 kitchens.

"There's more interaction with our staff in the serving line," Grasela said. "There's an opportunity for staff to work with them to explain what it is we're serving, encourage them to take healthy options."

Joan Richey, principal of the 1,092-student elementary school, was elated at the news that she would be getting her full-service cafeteria back.

"That's one more thing that lets the kids know that we care about them," Richey said. "It helps set a tone. And for some of these kids, this is their only hot meal of the day."

About 90 percent of Juniata Park students receive free or reduced lunch.

Grasela said the district hoped to be able to convert more satellite kitchens back to providing full-service meals. Decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis.

The district's food-service operation is not subsidized by its general fund but by an enterprise fund, meaning it must operate on the revenue it generates, primarily through reimbursement from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

On a recent weekday, Juniata Park students chowed down on their choice of the rotini entree, turkey and gravy, or a turkey wrap. There were green beans (a surprisingly popular choice), baked potatoes with parsley and garlic, and fresh fruit.

Gathered around a circular table, students Sophia, Joseph, and Christy - tough critics, to be sure - had warm words for the food this year.

"It's more fresh - less oily," Christy said. "It used to be all greasy. Even the vegetables are good now.

"I like the chicken sandwich; that's really good," offered Joseph. Other popular items on the Juniata Park students' list - waffles, hash browns and sausage, chicken thighs.

Then Sophia had a flashback.

"Eeew! Remember the mashed potatoes last year?" she asked Joseph and Christy.

"Yes, and that rice bowl thing we had sometimes? It was supposed to be hot, but it was cold at the bottom and only a little warm on top," Christy said, shaking her head at the memory.

Bottom line, "we're in love with this food," Christy said.

Advocates who strongly opposed the move away from full-service kitchens and pressed the district to reverse its decision are pleased but say there is much more work to be done. Most Philadelphia schoolchildren still eat the food Sophia, Christy, and Joseph so disdain.

"We applaud this as a good step forward, but you have to put it in the context of how many full-meal cafeterias have been closed," said Jonathan Stein, general counsel at Community Legal Services and a longtime antipoverty advocate. "We really need a lot more openings and reopenings to get this important service back on track."


Contact Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146, kgraham@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @newskag. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at www.philly.com/schoolfiles.

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