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Opposition to ending school-meals program grows

With reverberations echoing in Congress and even the White House, opposition to an Obama administration plan to end Philadelphia's 17-year-old school-meals program is growing.

With reverberations echoing in Congress and even the White House, opposition to an Obama administration plan to end Philadelphia's 17-year-old school-meals program is growing.

Sen. Arlen Specter and Gov. Rendell are protesting the U.S. Department of Agriculture's decision to end Universal Feeding here - a program wanted by New York and Los Angeles - and go with a plan that would cost the district $1 million more annually in paperwork and likely deprive meals to thousands of children.

Along with scrapping Universal Feeding, hailed as a success, the USDA wants Philadelphia to adopt the federal plan used in New York City, which school officials there say is unworkable.

"I do not understand this," Specter (D., Pa.) said in an interview this week. "You'd think it'd be pretty hard to be against motherhood, milk, and children."

On Tuesday, Rendell spoke on the phone with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and disputed Vilsack's contention that the change would not hurt children, said Donna Cooper, the governor's secretary of policy and planning.

Universal Feeding is unique because it does not require families to fill out applications for school meals.

Ending the program and making poor families fill out forms, Rendell told Vilsack, would deprive children of needed meals. Studies show such families eschew paperwork, Cooper said.

"The governor was really disappointed and mystified how the secretary thought this was not going to affect children," she added.

Meanwhile, Specter said he had dispatched his chief of staff to the White House this week to ask President Obama's staff to extend Universal Feeding to all cities. He sent Obama a letter with the same message, he said.

Universal Feeding allows all students in 200 Philadelphia schools where at least 72 percent of children are impoverished to get free meals without applying.

Specter said he and Sen. Robert Casey Jr. (D., Pa.) would try this year to include Universal Feeding in a bill to reauthorize child-nutrition programs.

If the reauthorization bill is not enacted, Specter said, he will use his seat on the Senate Agriculture Committee's appropriations subcommittee to expand Universal Feeding.

In challenging USDA bureaucrats, he said: "I've been on the Agriculture appropriations committee a long time, and my tenure exceeds that of bureaucrats."

Last week, Rep. Joe Sestak (D., Pa.) said he would draft his own legislation to expand Universal Feeding.

In an interview last week, USDA Deputy Undersecretary Janey Thornton said "it isn't fair" that Philadelphia had been the only city with Universal Feeding.

Yesterday, a department representative said in an e-mail that the agency would listen to alternate views: "USDA is considering proposals for paperless programs similar to Philadelphia's pilot project for the upcoming Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill. And USDA will pursue every possible step to ensure that eligible schoolchildren in Philadelphia are served."

By insisting on paperwork for Philadelphia in 2010, the USDA sets up a situation in which tens of thousands of children, many of whom do not eat daily meals other than school-provided ones, could go without food, antihunger advocate Jonathan Stein of Community Legal Services said.

The change could also cost the district federal funding, since such money is tied to the number of children eating free meals, school officials said.

"It's a shame to end this program," said Wayne Grasela, the district's senior vice president for food services. Just the effort to alert families to the change to applications would be "monumental," he said.

Critics of Universal Feeding wonder whether, by feeding all children in a school, some students who don't fit the legal definition of poor (130 percent of the federal poverty level) might get free meals.

Stein countered that the number of children who fall into that category is "statistically and monetarily insignificant."

Besides, he said, it's not as though these are rich children who happen to be living in poor neighborhoods.

The USDA said it wanted Philadelphia to switch to the "Provision 2" plan, used in New York. This requires families to apply for free meals every four years. In between, the district would use a paperless system similar to Universal Feeding.

Problems abound, said Michael Peck, director of food service for Pittsburgh's school system, which will begin using Provision 2 in September.

Aside from families' rejection of paperwork, he said, districts don't have the resources to verify the accuracy of family income.

The Food Bank for New York has written a report titled "Provision 2 - Why it Doesn't Work as Intended."

In the fourth year of New York's experience, the report said, problems were compounded when parents no longer saw a need to fill out forms, and school staff had to start an accountability process from scratch.

Calling Provision 2 "outmoded and labor intensive," the report added that the program cost New York tens of millions of dollars.

It was so confusing that 300 schools were dropped from the program in the fourth year, Stein said.

Dennis Barrett, food-service director for Los Angeles' schools, said he also wanted Philadelphia's plan.

He added that USDA officials wanted individual applications because they believed it brought higher accountability. But that assumption is wrong, Barrett said.

The Philadelphia program, based on sophisticated surveys of poor populations, is more accurate in determining which schools deserve free meals, he said.

This was Rendell's contention to Vilsack, the USDA chief, Cooper said.

"I'm not sure you should have confidence in the information being given to you by your staff," she quoted the governor as telling Vilsack. "We believe the data from the school district is accurate."