Children at one city school went hungry Thursday because of staff shortages hitting the Philadelphia School District.
No breakfast or lunch ever arrived to feed children at Mitchell Elementary in Southwest Philadelphia, staff said — and it wasn’t the first time this term meals failed to arrive at the school.
Superintendent William R. Hite Jr., who learned about the lack of food at Mitchell Thursday night, said the issue stemmed from “individuals who didn’t report to work, and that created a problem.” Mitchell’s cafeteria worker and the substitute worker were both absent, he said.
Hite said food was at Mitchell, but there was no one to distribute it, a notion that school staff disputed.
“It wasn’t like we can’t get meals to the school,” the superintendent said in an interview, adding that the district managed to distribute 11 million meals when the pandemic closed buildings because of COVID-19.
District staff told Mitchell at 9 a.m. Thursday that neither food nor staff would be sent to the school at 55th and Kingsessing, according to a letter sent to parents by the principal and obtained by The Inquirer. The account was verified by multiple staffers.
“As soon as stores opened, I ordered pizza for 400 students to attempt lunch service,” Stephanie Andrewlevich, the Mitchell principal, wrote. “Some of the pizzas arrived and were served to students, some have not arrived as of 2:15 p.m. and students were not served.”
Throughout the day, Mitchell teachers and support staff left their usual roles to staff the lunchroom, order pizza, and make runs to the store to buy water and juice.
“In addition, grades 3-8 have not received breakfast support as we do not have a district food services staff member to organize it daily,” Andrewlevich wrote.
Students overwhelmingly rely on the free meals the district provides. Nearly every child who attends the K-8 school is considered economically disadvantaged, but every Philadelphia student is entitled to no-cost meals, regardless of income.
One Mitchell teacher called the situation “awful” and said it wasn’t the first time Mitchell hasn’t gotten meals. Another time food didn’t come, Andrewlevich ordered soft pretzels to feed kids, the teacher said.
On Thursday, “the little ones didn’t get to eat breakfast or lunch today — some grades got pizza and some grades didn’t,” said the teacher, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal. “Their basic needs aren’t met and it’s beyond the school staff’s control. How can learning truly happen if basic needs aren’t met? It’s inhumane.”
During the school day Thursday, some students told Mitchell teachers and administration they were hungry, staffers said.
“They didn’t know why this was happening, then they said, ‘Oh well, it happens,’ which shouldn’t be normalized,” the teacher said.
Monica Lewis, the district spokesperson, said district protocol dictates when no cafeteria workers are available, school leaders call food services to send a roving worker. If no one is available, the school is directed to use one of its support staff to serve food. In this case, Mitchell’s principal said she had no staff to spare, and ordered pizza instead, Lewis said.
“It really was a matter of her taking it upon herself to order pizza,” said Lewis, adding that Andrewlevich “has been such a strong advocate for the school and the community. But I can’t speak to why she chose to order pizza.”
Mitchell staff underscored the fact that they would not have ordered pizza — some leaving school to go pick it up — if there had been other food in the building to feed children.
Dana Carter, an activist with the Racial Justice Organizing Community, said Mitchell students’ lack of breakfast and lunch wasn’t the only time district children haven’t received meals. Carter said she was aware of 30 schools that didn’t receive meals on Sept. 1.
Carter said on Sept. 2 she met with the district’s head of food services, who acknowledged the food delivery issues but promised they would be resolved by Sept. 9.
The food services official, Carter said in an email to Hite, Mayor Jim Kenney, and the school board sent Friday, explained that “the warehouse didn’t have enough workers to load the trucks. Because trucks couldn’t be loaded at the warehouse, the food couldn’t get to schools.”
Lewis said even if schools did not receive regular breakfast and lunch food, they all have a stock of shelf-stable emergency meals — crackers, applesauce, sunflower butter, vegetable juice, and milk — to serve to students in a pinch.
“To my knowledge, there hasn’t been a situation where food wasn’t available,” Lewis said.
The food service issue comes amid a rocky start to the school year for the district, which has grappled with transportation woes, school nurse struggles, environmental problems, and other significant issues.
A lack of food hasn’t been the only basic needs failure. The teacher said Mitchell’s water fountains and bottle-filling stations have also been mostly nonfunctional.
Building staff work to fix the fountains, then they break again “and the kids get thirsty and can’t get water,” the teacher said. The principal ordered water bottles for students, the teacher said, but without consistent student water supply, they can’t always fill them.
Parent Nikyta Gray is both furious and worried, she said.
Gray loves Mitchell, a school that’s revered in its community as a safe haven, a partner with families, and a place for them to access support and resources. She’s happy with its COVID-19 protocols.
Kids are “happy to be back, and I do like the precautions that the schools are taking — they’re not letting you in the building, they are bringing your children down to you, they’re meeting with you at the door to discuss whatever you need, and making an appointment with you,” said Gray.
But this year has been rough, she said — no breakfast, and sometimes no lunch?
“This,” Gray said, “is unacceptable.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.