Five area legislators have introduced legislation that would make the Philadelphia School District's "universal feeding" program a national model.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture last year proposed shutting down the unique program, which provides free breakfasts and lunches to all pupils in poor neighborhoods without requiring families to fill out paperwork.

Department officials explained that districts elsewhere had expressed resentment that Philadelphia alone was permitted to dispense with the application requirement. Plans called for ending the program in 2010.

But Pennsylvania Democrats, including Sens. Robert Casey and Arlen Specter and Rep. Chaka Fattah, prevailed on the department to continue the program locally, and yesterday announced they were pressing to make it available to any district in the country.

Their bill, introduced in both houses of Congress, would extend the program as part of the Child Nutrition Act, which is due for reauthorization. Two other local Democrats, Reps. Allyson Schwartz and Robert Brady, were also sponsors, as was Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D., Colo.).

The legislators said the universal program got many more youngsters eating healthy meals than those requiring parental applications and carried no stigma for participants.

About 120,000 of the district's 167,000 pupils participate in the program, which was launched in 1991, Fernando Gallard, a district spokesman, said yesterday.

"Kids who eat better learn better. It's as simple as that," Fattah said in statement. "Poor kids may not always get the nutrition they need at home, but the Philadelphia pilot program has provided them with nutritious meals at school. It works in Philadelphia; It will work nationally."

The legislation would allow schools or districts pledging to serve free meals to all their students for five years to be reimbursed based on a socioeconomic profile of the surrounding population rather than individual applications.

The sponsors note that some needy families find it embarrassing to report their income and that adults in dysfunctional households don't always complete the applications.

Contact staff writer David O'Reilly at 215-854-5723 or doreilly@phillynews.com.