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Congressmen push to save free-lunch for poor children

A unique free-lunch program for poor children in Philadelphia schools will continue another five years under a bill introduced Thursday on Capitol Hill.

The city's Universal Feeding program, which allows more than 110,000 students to eat free lunches without having to fill out applications, was included in the "Improving Nutrition for America's Children Act."

U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) and U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.) said Thursday that they worked with other members of the Philadelphia congressional delegation and their staffs to get the provision for the Philadelphia program into the House bill. A Senate version currently does not include a similar provision.

Without the Philadelphia provision, thousands of poor city students could face the loss of free lunch, advocates say. Children and their families in poor communities don't always complete such forms, creating the potential for kids to go hungry.

"This is the right thing to do, a no-brainer for me," Sestak said in an interview Thursday, vowing to "continue to push" to make sure Philadelphia gets to keep Universal feeding beyond 2015.

Said Fattah, "The kids of Philadelphia need to have this program secure, and we know now that it's going to be done."

The full House is expected to vote on the measure by the fall. Several congressional staffers said they believe it will pass. In the Senate, Sen. Arlen Specter and Sen. Bob Casey have said they will work to include Philadelphia's feeding program into a bill that has been voted out of agriculture committee.

There's been a debate in Congress over the way to determine who is poor enough to qualify for free lunch. Only in Philadelphia has that calculation has been based on surveys that ask about family income, which local advocates say does the best job of counting needy children.

The Senate committee, in a bipartisan vote, approved a bill that would establish eligibility by a family's presence on government-assistance rolls. It's a method known as direct certification.

Because surveys like Philadelphia's are too expensive and complex for most school districts, direct certification is the more workable model, congressional staffers say.

One flaw is that many people who are eligible for government assistance do not apply for it, antihunger advocates say. That would cause an undercount of children eligible for free lunch, according to these advocates.

To address the potential undercount, the Senate committee suggested increasing the number of children who can qualify by applying a multiplier of 1.6. But if the multiplier would fall below 1.6 - as some in Congress said it might - it would result in the loss of free lunch for as many as 51,182 students - 46 percent of the Philadelphia children who receive free lunches.

The bill introduced Thursday would address childhood obesity by improving the kinds of foods served in school cafeterias, a project of First Lady Michelle Obama.

It would also expand feeding programs for poor children during summer months, when schools are typically closed.