A highly regarded Philadelphia schools breakfast-and-lunch program - the only one of its kind in the United States - is being terminated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The 17-year-old program aimed at poor students is unique because it doesn't require students and their families to fill out application forms for free or reduced-price meals. This maximizes student participation.

The USDA said it needed the applications to better monitor the program.

According to documents obtained by The Inquirer, the so-called Universal Feeding Program will no longer exist beginning in the 2010 school year.

The change would affect about 121,000 students getting free and reduced-price school meals. It also could cost the district $800,000 annually, and perhaps millions more.

"The implications of eliminating the Universal Feeding Program within the school district will have devastating . . . impacts," according to a written appeal sent last month by the state Department of Education to the USDA.

Written by Vonda Fekete, the department's director of child-nutrition programs, the appeal added that the termination would hurt "the children who depend upon the school district as the source, and sometimes the only source, of one of the basic necessities of life, which is food."

Fekete would not comment on her appeal.

Vincent Thompson, a spokesman for the school district, said yesterday: "The district is disappointed by the decision. We will fight to reverse it."

Philadelphia model

In April, U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (D., Iowa) wrote a letter to the USDA suggesting that the Philadelphia model be used in other school districts around the country. Harkin is chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry.

Both New York and Los Angeles wanted to adapt the Philadelphia model.

But four months after Harkin wrote his letter, the USDA sent a letter to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, announcing the program's termination.

Universal Feeding was based on a concept originated by Philadelphia Community Legal Services and Temple University in 1991.

It eliminated the need for poor children and their parents to fill out applications for free and reduced school meals.

Simple as it sounds, the process of having poor children bring home lunch forms for parents to fill out is a daunting task, said Jonathan Stein, general counsel of Community Legal Services. It was Stein who worked with Temple to get Universal Feeding going.

Children forget, and poor parents already beset by outsized difficulties are unwilling or unable to deal with the forms. And so they languish unsigned. And children miss out on meals, Stein said.

At Stein's suggestion, Temple researchers surveyed Philadelphia schools and learned that about 200 of the district's 280 schools had high enrollments of low-income children - around 75 percent.

"If you have a large majority of poor children in a school, get rid of the paper applications and just provide free lunches and breakfasts for everyone," Stein said.

Eliminating paperwork

The USDA, which funds school lunches through the state Department of Education, signed on to what it termed a pilot program that wound up lasting nearly two decades.

The lack of paperwork saved the district money, advocates said. And another, more subtle problem was overcome: poor children's stigma over receiving free meals.

Studies show that children who are eligible for free or reduced-cost school meals often do not eat them if other, better-off students pay for their own, said Kathy Fisher, an expert on public benefits for Public Citizens for Children and Youth in Philadelphia.

The program was eliminating paperwork and stigma, advocates said. The participation rate in the Philadelphia Universal Feeding sites has been nearly twice the rate as in non-Universal sites - 80 percent vs. 45 percent, Fekete wrote.

Last year, with USDA collaboration, the school district paid $550,000 for a new survey conducted by the Reinvestment Fund in Philadelphia to update information on the socioeconomic level of the students in Universal Feeding, Fekete wrote.

She chided USDA for shutting down the program after the district spent that money.

Jean Daniel, a USDA spokeswoman, said that after the study came out, the agency decided it preferred a standard in which every child applied individually for meals because it would be more accurate.

Along with the extra paperwork-processing costs, the district may face millions more in losses, Fekete wrote.

A good deal of a school district's funding is based on the number of low-income students in its schools. This figure, in turn, is based on school-lunch data. Therefore, a district with a lot of poor kids eating free lunch gets more money.

So if Philadelphia goes back to lunch applications as the USDA wants, it will register fewer poor students, since it is already known that a huge number of poor students and their parents won't fill out lunch-application forms.

This could cost the Philadelphia School District as much as $11 million, Fekete wrote.

In a separate irony, new schools superintendent Arlene Ackerman began a program last month to offer breakfast to all students in all schools. Ackerman's plan depended on the continuation of Universal Feeding.

Advocates claim that as soon as other cities clamored for the program, the USDA ended Universal Feeding in Philadelphia to save money.

Daniel of the USDA said that wasn't the case.

Members of the Pennsylvania congressional delegation - including Sens. Bob Casey and Arlen Specter - sent a letter to USDA Secretary Ed Schafer yesterday saying that ending Universal Feeding "reverses the good work" done to fight hunger.

Contact staff writer Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com.