Some Philadelphia School District culinary programs do not have food

Nearly four months after the start of the school year, students in some culinary programs in the Philadelphia School District are severely lacking the staple of their trade – food.

Driven by nationwide labor and supply chain shortages and the abrupt cancellation of its contract by a supplier, but complicated by a central office that could not find solutions to Large-scale bypass for the food supply, the lack of materials has frustrated teachers and students in one of the district’s most popular vocational and technical programs, which are offered in 12 schools in the city.

“The kids come in -” Chief, what are we doing today? And I say, ‘Well, we’re going to measure the water again,’ ”said a cooking teacher.

Several teachers discussed the lack of supplies with The Inquirer but asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal, and said the problem was particularly acute given that cooking students did not have access to the kitchens at the school for 18 months before this school year.

The problems began in August, when longtime district foodservice provider US Foods canceled school catering contracts nationwide, citing labor shortages and warehouse issues. . And while officials may have scrambled to find a supplier for the 120,000 school meals the system serves daily, that same supplier could not also meet the needs of the culinary programs, said Marissa Orbanek, a spokesperson for the district.

Once US Foods left the district in deep trouble, the Career and Technical Office “immediately realigned the culinary program to focus on using the resources that continued to be provided,” Orbanek said in a statement. . “Students focused on specific learning experiences within the district’s culinary program, such as theory, nutrition, and industry certifications such as the use and maintenance of commercial equipment, and safety procedures. and sanitation. “

Managers are looking for new suppliers, Orbanek said, and “to date every program has received resources from new suppliers.”

But several cooking teachers say they saw next to nothing, and what they were able to get their hands on was paid for out of pocket or out of school funds not intended for food. (Culinary program supplies are expected to come from central office funds, not individual school budgets, which typically have limited discretionary funds.)

The dilemma forces teachers to make tough decisions – spend their own money on food so that students promised hands-on experience can gain that hands-on experience – or continue to settle for a curriculum that doesn’t cover what students are. expected to know when it’s time to take industry certification exams.

“Some of us who are a little more eager to teach go in our own pocket, but not everyone can,” said a cooking teacher. “I’m about $ 1,000. The kids need to learn something, even if I buy five bags of sugar for $ 25 to teach them the difference between a liquid and a dry measure. But they are supposed to train and they are supposed to eat.

Some teachers have gushed for potatoes and eggs. Others bought basic baking supplies, sugar and flour but margarine instead of butter, because it’s so much cheaper, “but that’s crap,” the professor said. of the kitchen.

It’s especially tough for seniors who have to take NOCTI, the industry’s leading certification exam, this spring, the teacher said. They haven’t been able to cook since March 2020, when they were in second grade.

“It’s a very bad situation,” said another cooking teacher, whose school had to turn down catering contracts and community events because they had no supplies. “Our seniors have missed a year and a half, our juniors have never been in the store. They weren’t in the kitchen because of COVID, and now they can’t train. How can you learn to boneless chicken without chicken? “

Research shows that students in vocational and technical programs are more likely to graduate from high school than their peers in traditional high schools, and the benefits are more pronounced for students from low-income families. But teachers are worried about their students’ preparation because of COVID-19 and the persistent lack of food.

The cooking students, said the professor, “are pissed off. They don’t want to take NOCTI. They wanted to do a one-day walkout. There is no food, so we are going to give them a big assessment and talk to them about fairness.

Orbanek said the district “is looking for innovative solutions to meet the needs of our CTE program and develop new supplier relationships where we can.” A school is working directly with Fox Chase Farms to secure supplies so students can learn how to bake pies from scratch, she said. New suppliers are arriving and the district intends to “place orders for resources before the winter break”.

In the future, if teachers wish to purchase their own supplies to be used in the interim, “a process has been developed to reimburse expenses, and teachers can contact the CTE office for approval and processing.”

Schools across the country have dealt with “difficult issues” on many fronts throughout the year, Orbanek said.

“We ask our school community to continue to be patient and flexible as we work to forge new relationships to resolve these complex issues,” said Orbanek.

But the teacher with the students who discussed the outing said they are frustrated with what they say is a bureaucracy that has left them languishing in not putting resources directly into the hands of teachers until the system wide problems are resolved.

“Let’s buy the food. We have to train the children. We’ll go to ShopRite with the money, just give us the funds, ”the teacher said. “I have to put knives in their hands.”

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