Junk food: bad for students, good for school district budget

Banning soda and snack food from the Philadelphia School District in 2006 was meant to make students healthier, but it has also had an unintended effect: the loss of $2 million to $3 million in revenue to the district each year.

School officials revealed this yesterday at a hearing called by City Council's Education Committee to probe the safety and nutrition of the district's lunch program following February's federal recall of beef products to schools.

About 10 members of the public testified on topics including poor-quality lunches, the lack of organic foods, the underused free-breakfast program and scheduling problems that result in a small number of schools serving lunch as early as 9 a.m.

"The school district has lost a tremendous amount of revenue as a result of . . . healthy snacks because kids don't like that as much as the stuff that is not healthy," said Fred Farlino, the district's interim chief operating officer.

"We don't mind losing the $2 million, frankly, because it is not unlike the discussion we are having here today about regular food versus organic," he said. "That's the right way to go, we just have to figure out how to get there given the cost."

He added that school officials plan to include those who complained in improving the $78 million food program.

Jonathan Stein, general counsel for Community Legal Services, Inc., testified that the district needs to do more to boost the number of students who receive free breakfast each school day. He estimated that 43,000 students receive breakfast each school day, though studies show it helps students do better in school.

"This means that approximately 100,000 students are low-income and eligible, and not receiving a free breakfast," he said.

Farlino said many students skip the federally funded breakfast program because they come to school too late or they fill up on corner-store snacks on the way to school.

"Our goal is to serve as many breakfasts as we do lunches. That would really be the appropriate thing to do," said Farlino, adding that he will recommend to the district's incoming chief executive officer, Arlene Ackerman, that the breakfast program be made mandatory for all students.

Responding to a statement from a teacher who said his nutrition students found that the cafeteria cheese contained an ingredient classified by the FDA as toxic, Farlino said: "I believe our food . . . is safe, and we adhere to or exceed all standards that the government provides." *