The U.S. Department of Agriculture must be out to lunch. Why else would the agency end a successful Philadelphia schools breakfast and lunch program that feeds thousands of poor students daily?
The highly regarded program has worked because it eliminates red tape, allowing more poor children to get healthy meals, which, in turn, improves learning. The program is the only one in the country. It began as a "pilot" project and has been around for 17 years.
Under the Universal Feeding Program, students and their families are not required to fill out application forms for free or reduced-price meals. The USDA supported the concept when it launched the program nearly two decades ago. Now, New York and Los Angeles want to adopt the model.
But the agency, which funds school lunches, wants to end it because it believes the application forms are needed to better monitor the program. That is a step backward. Past practice shows that many poor students and their parents won't fill out the forms.
Ending the program could cost the district $800,000 annually and have a devastating impact on poor children, who may get their only regular sustenance at school. Pennsylvania is appealing the USDA decision to shut down the application-free program in 2010. The state's congressional delegation is also urging the department to reconsider.
Experts say that children who are eligible for free or reduced-price meals often won't participate because of the stigma it creates.
But by eliminating the paperwork and designation of being poor, the program ensures that more students participate and get two free meals at school. The program feeds about 121,000 students.
It makes sense to have such a program in a city where 200 of 280 public schools have high enrollments of low-income children, says Jonathan Stein of Community Legal Services, which worked with Temple University to start the program. Everyone gets a free meal. Maybe not all meet the poverty limit, but it's unlikely there are many wealthy kids in these schools abusing the system.
The program has gotten impressive results. Nearly twice as many students eat meals at schools with the Universal Feeding Program than at schools without it, says Vonda Fekete, director of child-nutrition programs for the state Department of Education.
U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (D., Iowa) asked the USDA last spring to use the Philadelphia model in other school districts. Coincidentally, four months later, the USDA announced that it was terminating Philadelphia's program.