Charlie Baltimore eyed the pizza in the cafeteria of the High School of the Future with simmering contempt. "In a year," the ...
PHILADELPHIA — Charlie Baltimore eyed the pizza in the cafeteria of the High School of the Future with contempt.
“In a year,” the school administrator vowed, “we’re going to eliminate pizza.”
Unlike most city schools, the technologically specialized West Philadelphia school has a full kitchen where many meals are prepared practically from scratch. Like just four other schools, it gets $5,000 a year in extra funding from the district to buy fresh produce. There’s even a vegetable garden.
Future is emblematic both of what healthy school eating can look like and of Philadelphia’s place in the forefront of cities seeking to improve school meals.
Most Read Local Stories
- Washington state trooper who died of COVID hadn't been vaccinated yet, family says
- Seattle mayoral matchmaker: Which candidate shares your views?
- What to know about Monday's COVID vaccine deadline in Washington state
- How his twin brother's deathbed plea was a call to action for Washington state's insurance commissioner
- Washington physician assistant’s license suspended over COVID actions
But Future is a relative anomaly. And, according to Baltimore and others, much work has to be done to get other schools in the city — as well as across America — up to that same standard.
Denigrating most district meal offerings as “slop,” Baltimore said: “The more we phase out garbage, the better our students will be.”
Baltimore’s call for change coincides with a movement to make school meals healthier.
There’s a battle on to beat back childhood obesity and to fight hunger among poor children, more of whom are eating subsidized school meals because of the economy. Often, schools serve the only nutritious meals children eat, advocates say.
Within two weeks, Congress is expected to vote on the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act, which funds the $12 billion-a-year school-meal programs, among others.
It’s the first reauthorization in more than five years, and President Obama, who has pledged to end child hunger by 2015, wants to add $10 billion to it over 10 years.
His administration also wants to increase the reimbursement rate for meal programs, saying it will help districts afford healthier food.
Though many suburban districts have fewer poor students, a move to more healthful offerings would apply to those schools as well.
Recently, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asked the nonprofit Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, to assess school meals. The U.S. Department of Agriculture administers school food programs.
The conclusion: Too much sugar, salt and fat. First lady Michelle Obama, in Philadelphia last month for her campaign against childhood obesity, concurred.
The institute did the first major overhaul of school nutritional rules since the 1970s, said the director of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Nutrition Center, Virginia Stallings, who headed the effort. The report calls for more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, while limiting fat, calories and sodium. If accepted, the IOM’s recommendations could be in place by 2011.
The reauthorization is also inspiring proposed changes rooted in a 19-year-old local program.
Further, Vilsack announced that the reauthorization bill should limit the sale of high-sugar drinks and snacks in school vending machines. And he wants to curtail “a la carte” items — non-USDA-sanctioned snacks that schools sell to make money.
Change is vital, say doctors who see obese children with adult illnesses such as high blood pressure and diabetes.
The nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine wants to improve nutrition by mandating vegetarian meals in schools, said Kathryn Strong, the organization’s dietitian.
Others agree. “If we take 100 calories a day out of school meals, we move the needle on obesity,” said Gary Foster, director of the Center for Obesity Research and Education at Temple University.
The Institute of Medicine is attacking calories. Until now, USDA school-meal guidelines have stipulated minimum calories only, without any upper limits. In the 1970s when the minimums were first set, doctors were worried that children weren’t eating enough, Stallings said.
For example, the only rule about calories in lunches for kids in grades seven through 12 has been that they contain at least 825 calories. The new proposal calls for a range of calories: no fewer than 750 calories, but no more than 850 calories per lunch for that age group.
“That’s a big change,” Stallings said, acknowledging that the institute’s recommendations would increase food costs — 18 percent for breakfast, 4 percent for lunch.
A whole-grain bun can be 10 cents more than a regular bun, said Wayne Grasela, senior vice president of the division of food services for Philadelphia schools.
As a remedy, Vilsack is asking Congress for an increase in the USDA reimbursement.
Throughout the country, the USDA reimburses school districts for meals on a scale connected to income.
The agency pays $2.68 per free lunch for children whose families live below 130 percent of the U.S. poverty level; $2.28 for reduced-price lunches for children at 130 to 185 percent of poverty; and about 25 cents for full-price lunches for those above 185 percent. (The poverty level for a family of four is about $22,000.)
Breakfast reimbursements run about $1 less per meal.
The nonprofit School Nutrition Association requested a 35-cent-per-meal increase.
In 2009, about 32 million children participated in the school-lunch program, with nearly 64 percent receiving free or reduced-price meals, USDA figures show. About 11 million ate breakfast at school, with about 84 percent eating free or reduced-price meals.
From 2008 through 2009, the number of children eating subsidized lunch nationwide increased by 600,000, attributable to the bad economy, Wootan said.
About 20 percent of the food in school cafeterias comes from the USDA commodities program, a list of 180 foods donated by the agency. The rest is purchased on the open market with reimbursement dollars.
Beef and cheese make up 75 percent of the items districts get from the commodities list, Wootan said. Many districts — Philadelphia included — divert fresh commodities to processors, Wootan said. “Too many schools turn chicken into nuggets, or pork into pizza toppings,” she said.
While students carp about school meals, they’re superior to most foods kids consume outside school, experts say. Since 2007, Foster of Temple and others have followed a group of fourth through eighth graders from 10 Philadelphia schools in the streets.
The results: Even a poor child would spend an average of $1.07 per stop in a corner store. Kids took in an average of 360 calories each time, mostly from chips and drinks.
It’s difficult to alter children’s eating habits, advocates say. But these days, there’s a growing will to try.
“There’s change coming,” said Charlie Baltimore. “From the White House down, there’s more interest. We’ll get where we want.”
— — —
(c) 2010, The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Visit Philadelphia Online, at http://www.philly.com/
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.