Philly students tackle cafeteria food

GAMP students took this photo to illustrate school meals they say are unappetizing and not very healthy.

I now interrupt this bad budget news for another story of how kids do great things in Philadelphia schools every day.

School cafeteria food is a perpetual joke — unappetizing, unidentifiable mystery meat; meals heavy on carbs and light on fresh ingredients.

Three seniors at Girard Academic Music Program, a Philadelphia School District magnet school in South Philadelphia, want to fix that.

Jasmine Oliver is part of a group exploring how they can get more fresh fruits and vegetables in city schools. It’s part of a service project for her social science class.

Oliver, Brittany Jefferson and Alberta Douglas have interviewed dietitians, learned about legislation make school lunches healthier, and talked to their classmates.

“Typically, I don’t really eat the spaghetti or anything with meat or marinara, because it doesn’t taste good,” said one student interviewed on camera for the girls’ project. She was eating macaroni and cheese because “it’s not repulsive.”

“It looked pretty well-cooked,” the student said. “A lot of the things they make they don’t cook through — the meat and things like that.”

Oliver lives in East Falls and has a long ride to school; she doesn’t have time to pack a lunch. To avoid the entrees served in the cafeteria, she’ll either skip lunch or eat an apple, if one is available.

On Wednesday, she said the cafeteria offering was lasagna, which didn’t look appetizing, or a hot dog and french fries. Canned pears were also offered.

“It’s loads and loads of starch — starch and sodium,” said Oliver, 18.

It’s not an easy fix for a 151,000-student district that serves up 80,000 free lunchs and 65,000 free breakfasts every day.

Federal funding for school lunches does not cover the actual cost of buying and preparing meals, even ones that students clearly do not enjoy. And the district has already closed full-service kitchens at 26 elementary and middle schools to save money this year.

Most schools serve “satellite” meals, which are cooked, plated and frozen several days before consumption and then trucked in from a warehouse. Some are served hot; others are not.

A farm-to-school pilot project does bring fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables into some city schools, but GAMP is not one of them. Thirty-three schools across Philadelphia participate in the program.

Jefferson said she and her partners will explore the farm-to-school program and see what other avenues might be open to them.

There have been small victories so far — fresh apple slices, but they want more, even in a district beset with serious budgetary woes.

“Adults take it as a joke — 'Kids trying to fix their lunch programs? Yeah, right. We don’t even have the money to fix textbooks,'” said Oliver. “But we’ve got to. School should be the foundation of how you learn to eat healthy.”