‘The system is failing us’: Why kids at a Philly school went hungry, and what it means for the district’s bigger picture
“For the district to not be prepared and to be in a state of crisis — because that’s what it is — enough is enough," said Mitchell parent Zakia Royster-Morris.
When children went hungry at Mitchell Elementary School one day last week, it was shocking, a group of staff said. But in some ways, it wasn’t terribly surprising.
Systems have been breaking down at Mitchell, in the Philadelphia School District, for years — but particularly so this school year, with its transportation crisis, school nurse shortage, problems with trash and technology, and more in schools across the city.
Mitchell, in Southwest Philadelphia, one of the neighborhoods hit hardest by gun violence, should have seven support staff to monitor the schoolyard and hallways. It has only three. It’s supposed to have two cafeteria workers. It currently has one who starts work 10 minutes after breakfast is supposed to be served to children.
Because teachers and administrators are helping out to support school climate, Mitchell teachers have had little to no common planning time or professional development, staff say. There’s not enough time for social and emotional support for children reeling after 18 months out of classrooms and living in a community steeped in trauma.
“This isn’t about Thursday,” said Shaw MacQueen, who teaches seventh and eighth grades at Mitchell. “This isn’t about Mitchell. This is about the district having schools — neighborhood schools, majority Black and brown schools — that are continually underfunded over years, and then they put the blame on teachers.”
The latest crisis happened Thursday, when many of Mitchell’s 400-plus kindergarten through eighth graders received no food to eat. According to multiple staffers and a letter the principal sent to parents, breakfast and lunch didn’t arrive at the school and no cafeteria workers were on hand to serve meals. The principal, Stephanie Andrewlevich, paid for pizza herself, and staff bought plates and juice.
But not enough pizza came in time to feed all students.
Staff did serve the limited emergency meals it had on hand — crackers, a peanut butter substitute, dried cranberries, and juice — but there were only enough rations to feed a quarter of Mitchell students.
“Most of our kids didn’t eat. The kids kept asking, ‘I’m hungry, when are we going to eat?’” one teacher said.
Like many, the teacher, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal, keeps a stash of snacks she buys herself — granola bars and applesauce — on hand. She gave them all out, but it wasn’t enough.
The lack of food soured the day — for hungry children, for staff worried about feeding them. Children were edgier. Some developed headaches.
“There were a lot of complaints, a lot of concerns, and a lot of hungry kids,” said Kim Abney, Mitchell’s counselor. “We did the best we could, under difficult circumstances. It takes a village to bring up these kids, and we do what we have to.”
The day after kids weren’t fed, multiple officials from the district central office descended on the school and made sure adequate food and workers were on hand, but Abney and other staff are frustrated there was help only after public outcry.
“Thanks for coming, but it should not have come to this point,” said Abney. “We talk about having safe schools, and part of that is our kids are fed. I do feel that the district failed our kids that day for us to not receive help, and for them to say, ‘Make it work.’ How do you make it work if you don’t have what you need?”
Both Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. and district spokesperson Monica Lewis said food had been delivered to Mitchell, but cafeteria staffers were unavailable. Lewis said the school was directed to redeploy school staff to distribute the meals it had on hand but that the principal instead chose to break district protocol and order pizza.
Lewis praised staff at Mitchell and throughout the district for their tireless efforts throughout the pandemic.
“We realize that this has been a challenging time for everyone. There are labor shortages that are beyond any of our control. We want them to know that if they need our support, if they need additional help, we are there as much as possible — when they let us know they need support.”
The Mitchell staff, revered in the community for their student-supporting work and deep partnership with parents, are aghast at the district’s portrayal of the situation.
“If we had food, why would someone spend hundreds of dollars on pizza?” asked MacQueen, the building’s union representative and a member of the citywide Racial Justice Organizing Committee.
Like his colleagues, Kelly Jenkins, the school’s technology teacher, gives up lunch and preparation periods to make sure children are safe in the schoolyard and the hallways. And it’s getting increasingly hard to fill in gaps.
“We work as a family unit; when we see things that need to be done for our kids, we do it,” Jenkins said. “We’re out there assisting with admit in the mornings. I do the lunch. I cover recess and I cover dismissal, because we’re short-staffed. This is not about us — the whole thing with the food is a lack of competence downtown. The system is failing us.”
Another staffer, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, said the school can’t thrive when staff are doing double and triple duty daily, even though they’re doing so voluntarily; it’s not sustainable.
“We are all doing too much, which most often means nothing is done well and we are unable to provide positive, proactive systems,” the staffer said.
The only reason Zakia Royster-Morris has kept her daughter in the district is because of Mitchell, Royster-Morris said. But she was aghast that the little girl came home saying she got no lunch Thursday.
“For the district to not be prepared and to be in a state of crisis — because that’s what it is — enough is enough. We are at a constant state of anxiety with the Philadelphia School District. Our schools were not prepared to reopen, and when a crisis happens the school, staff, students and parents are left to pick up the pieces,” Royster-Morris said.
Jerry Jordan, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president, said the district’s response to the Mitchell situation “is emblematic of the completely reprehensible responses to district-wide crises.”
Once notified that children lacked enough food, the district should have responded with swift intervention, food, and support, the union president said.
“And yet, they not only neglected to feed the children, they also then responded to the publicity by excoriating the school principal and staff for purchasing pizza and beverages to ensure that children did not go hungry,” Jordan said in a statement. “The district’s obfuscation in response to this emergency is galling.”