A unique free-lunch program for poor children in Philadelphia schools would continue for five more 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. Reps. Joe Sestak (D., Pa.) and Chaka Fattah (D., Pa.) said Thursday 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. The Senate version does not have a similar provision.
Without the Philadelphia provision, thousands of poor city students could face the loss of free lunches, advocates say. Children and their families in poor communities don't always complete such forms, creating the potential for youngsters to go hungry.
"This is the right thing to do, a no-brainer for me," Sestak said in an interview Thursday.
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 believed it would pass. In the Senate, Pennsylvania Sens. Arlen Specter and Bob Casey have said they would work to include Philadelphia's feeding program in a bill that has been voted out of the Agriculture Committee.
There has 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 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. That method is 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 eligible for government assistance do not apply for it, antihunger advocates say.
The bill introduced Thursday would also expand feeding programs for poor children during summer months, when schools are typically closed.