The U.S. Department of Agriculture is supporting a Bush administration edict to end a well-regarded Philadelphia school breakfast and lunch program, according to a high-ranking USDA official.
Antihunger advocates are outraged, saying many poor children who normally get free lunch and breakfast may go without if the USDA ends the program, the only one of its kind in the country.
Known as Universal Feeding, the program allows more than 120,000 students in poor schools to eat free meals without having to fill out applications. Children and their families in poor communities don't always complete such forms. The USDA, however, is insisting that paperwork be used, which will result in fewer poor children eating, advocates say.
Advocates added that they may sue the USDA over the decision, which they said was especially puzzling given President Obama's vow to end childhood hunger by 2015.
In an interview last week, Agriculture Deputy Undersecretary Janey Thornton said "it isn't fair" that Philadelphia is the only city with this program. She added, "We have to treat all districts in the country alike." She further cited problems she had with the program's statistical underpinnings, which she condemned as "no longer accurate" and "completely out of date."
Earlier in the week, members of the Philadelphia congressional delegation offered different accounts of what is happening. Several members met with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack a little more than a week ago in Washington in an effort to retain the program. Late Friday, the USDA informed the delegation that the change would occur.
Adding to the confusion, the USDA letter to Congress indicates the program will end with this school year. But a USDA spokeswoman wrote Friday night in an e-mail that the program would not be terminated until the end of the 2010-11 school year.
If Universal Feeding ends this year, September will be chaotic, advocates warned.
Earlier Friday, Rep. Chakah Fattah (D., Pa.) said no one from the Philadelphia congressional delegation had received official word that the program would end. Until someone does, he said Friday, "there is no foregone conclusion that Philadelphia children will be left without these meals."
But Rep. Joe Sestak (D., Pa.) said last week that it was his understanding that the USDA "plans on terminating the program at the end of 2010." That is why, he said, he is drafting legislation to extend Universal Feeding not just for Philadelphia, but also for other cities.
Fattah and Sestak met with Vilsack and Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D., Pa.), among others.
In 1991, at the behest of Jonathan Stein of Community Legal Services, Temple University researchers did survey work that found that 200 of the district's 280 schools had high enrollments of low-income children - around 75 percent.
The thinking was that if a school had a large majority of poor children, the district would eschew paper applications and provide free breakfasts and lunches for everyone.
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. It seemed to work, with the participation rate in the Universal Feeding sites almost twice the rate in non-Universal sites - 80 percent vs. 45 percent, according to state figures.
Now, for the first time in nearly a generation, all children and their families may have to fill out forms, and processing them could cost the district $800,000 annually.
A spokesman reached Friday said the district had received no official word from the USDA.
But Thornton, who began her job April 1 after being appointed by Obama, asserted that "it is my understanding that they [Philadelphia officials] will be going back to paper applications."
The idea did not sit well with Mariana Chilton, a hunger expert and a professor at the Drexel University School of Public Health.
"If this happens," she said, "going back to paper will doom thousands and thousands of children who will go without meals. It doesn't make sense."
Asked about Chilton's remark, Thornton said, "You are likely to lose a few. You might. It will be difficult the first year to get parents to understand they are going to have to fill out applications, but we need to be able to answer to other school districts who say, 'How come Philadelphia gets to do this and we can't? I have no answer for that. And 17 years is a long, long time for a pilot program."
The solution, some have suggested, is to extend the program to other cities.
Before the Bush administration decided to terminate the program, Sen. Tom Harkin (D., Iowa), chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, said Universal Feeding was working so well it should be used in other cities. New York and Los Angeles had asked about adapting the program.
"It's an absolute shame that the USDA appears to be forcing Philadelphia backwards rather than moving other cities forward to a more efficient system in which more kids are fed," said Kathy Fisher of Philadelphia's Public Citizens for Children and Youth.
And Stein, of Community Legal Services, said he was contemplating suing the USDA in federal court for "arbitrarily and irrationally denying thousands of children meals they need for their health."
In the 2006-07 school year, the district paid for a new survey by the Reinvestment Fund in Philadelphia.
"I disagree completely with [Thornton's] characterization that the data are out of date," said Ira Goldstein, who was in charge of the study for the Reinvestment Fund. He added that the USDA had been involved in the design, editing, and approval of the final report that Thornton was criticizing.
He further said the socio-economic data that the Reinvestment Fund collected for Universal Feeding were "more precise" than statistics used by districts relying on paper applications.
Casey said he was angry that the USDA wanted to end Universal Feeding, but "I'm trying to control my anger to get this worked out."
He added that he and his colleagues would try to negotiate a resolution that wouldn't deny meals to children.
Refusing to believe the USDA has the last word, Casey said, "There's still a good bit of work to do."