The U.S. Department of Agriculture has decided not to discontinue a Philadelphia school breakfast and lunch program that provides free meals to poor students, members of the city's congressional delegation announced yesterday.

Democratic Sens. Bob Casey and Arlen Specter and Rep. Chaka Fattah said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack had reversed an agency plan to end the program, which allows more than 120,000 students in poor schools to eat free meals without having to fill out applications.

USDA spokeswoman Chris Mather said the agency had "postponed making a decision" on the program until Congress considered a national update of child nutrition programs. Congress this year is expected to consider a reauthorization and overhaul of the Child Nutrition Act.

Universal Feeding, as the program is known, was launched in 1991 as a pilot program and has lasted nearly two decades. Agriculture officials had contended that it was not fair that Philadelphia was the only city allowed to provide free meals without the paperwork.

The decision - made during the second Bush administration and adopted under President Obama - would have required Philadelphia parents to fill out applications after the 2009-10 school year.

State figures show that nearly twice as many students get free meals when parents are not required to fill out the applications. Advocates say that parents in poor communities do not always complete the forms and that sometimes the school meals are the only meals the children eat.

In a statement, Philadelphia Superintendent Arlene Ackerman thanked the delegation and added: "When students have empty stomachs, it is harder to fill their minds with information and knowledge, and their hearts with ambition and hope."

New York City and Los Angeles have expressed interest in adopting the program.

Casey said he would introduce legislation next week to create a national program similar to Universal Feeding. Casey said the goal was to take action this fall on the Child Nutrition Act, which was last reauthorized in 2004.

"This is great news for the children of Philadelphia's school district, who will continue to receive the nutrition they need," said Specter, who pressed Vilsack on the matter at a hearing Thursday.

Fattah also applauded the decision and said of the application requirement: "This is one verifiable instance where government red tape and inefficiency gets in the way of helping needy kids."

The Pennsylvania congressional delegation had been vocal and persistent about not letting the program end, said Mayor Nutter.

"It was clear from my conversation with Secretary Vilsack today that our Pennsylvania delegation spoke in one clear voice about the extraordinary success and importance of this program - and we were heard," Nutter said.

Contact staff writer Robert Moran at 215-854-5983 or bmoran@phillynews.com.