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Editorial: Food for thought

If it isn't broken, don't fix it! That's the axiom the federal government ought to follow when it comes to the Philadelphia schools' free- meals program.

If it isn't broken, don't fix it!

That's the axiom the federal government ought to follow when it comes to the Philadelphia schools' free- meals program.

After months of wrangling, the U.S. Department of Agriculture appears ready to pull the plug on the successful program that provides free breakfasts and lunches to more than 120,000 city youngsters each year.

The pilot program began 17 years ago, and is the only one like it in the country. It should be a model for school districts around the country, not abolished.

Students don't like the stigma that comes with being labeled poor. That's not a problem when everyone gets a free meal.

"Universal Feeding" works because the program allows students in poor schools to eat free or reduced price meals without having to fill out paperwork. The participation rate is nearly twice that of schools that require applications, state figures show.

The USDA began efforts to dismantle Universal Feeding under the Bush administration, arguing then that application forms were needed to better monitor the program's effectiveness.

But now, new Agriculture Deputy Undersecretary Janey Thornton has come up with another rationale that makes even less sense: that "it isn't fair" that other cities don't have the program. She also claims the program's statistics are outdated, but anti-hunger advocates dispute that.

If Thornton wants to do the "fair" thing - and help President Obama meet his pledge to end childhood hunger by 2015 - she should extend the program to other cities. Several have expressed interest.

Ordering Philadelphia schools to require parents to fill out applications to get free and reduced-price meals would be a major setback, one that advocates believe would likely result in far fewer poor children getting fed. Parents in poor families are less likely to complete applications.

Officials say that 200 of the Philadelphia district's 280 schools have high enrollments of low-income students. Some of these students get their only regular meals when they're at school.

Thornton believes the district would lose only "a few" children now receiving free meals by adding the paperwork requirement. She should know that creating a situation in which any child goes hungry is unacceptable - and avoidable. But without a reprieve, the program will be terminated after the 2010-11 school year.

Advocates are threatening to sue the USDA to keep that from happening. While they, Mayor Nutter, and Philadelphia's congressional delegation battle with the federal government to keep the program intact, district officials must begin working on a worst-case scenario.

They should begin devising a campaign now to educate parents about the forms, and how to fill them out. They also must prepare for the expense of processing the forms, which could cost $800,000.

District officials should start notifying parents about the possible changes in the program, and develop an aggressive strategy to sign up students so there won't be any gap in their getting meals.